Brandon Hook 10-02-2013

Seattle-based folk group The Head and the Heart released their newest single, "Another Story," off of their anticipated upcoming album, Let's Be Still. The song beautifully wrestles with the grief and confusion that struck the country during the chaos that followed the Newtown, Conn., shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Check it out below:

Mallory McDuff 09-30-2013
Paparazzi, Ronald Sumners /

Paparazzi, Ronald Sumners /

Some people follow pop-star celebrities. I follow spiritual writers.

Rather than tracking news about Lady Gaga or Beyonce, I’m a fangirl of writers like Anne Lamott, Nora Gallagher, Kathleen Norris, and Barbara Brown Taylor.  

The obsession is borderline embarrassing. Just last month, I announced at a party that writer Nora Gallagher, author of Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic, friended me on Facebook. (In truth, I was bragging about an imaginary friend.)

After Nora accepted my friend request, I was bold enough to send her the link to an op-ed I had written about making my teenager go to church. Within 48 hours, Nora wrote back that she liked the title of my piece. So I was convinced she would like me too.

My love of spiritual memoirs has reached the point that my book club, The Literary Ladies, issues a collective groan when it’s my turn to suggest book titles. Many believe that memoirs about faith are slightly self-indulgent. In contrast, I view such writing as the deepest expression of sacred meaning in the chaos of our daily lives.

Ron Sider 09-25-2013
Both-And: Living the Christ-Centered Life in an Either-Or World

Both-And: Living the Christ-Centered Life in an Either-Or World

We live in a church context where so many embrace unbiblical either/or understandings of Christianity: Either evangelism or social action, either inward journey or outward journey. And on and on.

It is the widespread onesidedness that makes Rich Nathan’s new book so exciting.

Mark Sandlin 09-19-2013

Every so often a fiction book makes a splash in the swamp of Christian literature, which is predominately ruled by non-fiction reads. The Shack by Wm. Paul Young would be one modern example and, reaching back just a bit more, In His Steps by Charles M. Sheldon would be another.

It's happened again.

Frank Schaeffer's And God Said, “Billy!” is a work of Christian fiction that just barely fits into the “Christian” sub-category of fiction. That's not to say it doesn't come with a heavy dose of Christian characters and culture (it does) as much as it is to say, unlike the other must-read fictions of the past that I just mentioned, this book could and should have a much broader appeal. So much so, I almost titled this review, “The Book Everyone Needs to Read ...”.

Adam Ericksen 09-18-2013
Beyonce, photo by nonu | photography,

Beyonce, photo by nonu | photography,

Maybe you are like me and you need a bit of good news this week, because it’s been a week of bad news. There was the tragic shooting at the Navy Yard, leaving 12 people killed. Then there were the racist comments about the new Miss America, Nina Davuluri. She is the first person of Indian descent to be crowned Miss America, yet the news of the event emphasized racist tweets. It was almost as if people were competing over who could be the most racist: Some referred to her as “the Arab,” and other tweets claimed, “this is America, not India,” and one even called her “Miss 7-11.” Not to mention the continuing escalation of tensions throughout the world involving Syria.

It was a depressing beginning to the week. I mimetically absorbed much of this violence, hatred, and racism. Misanthropy settled into my soul and I began to loathe myself and the entire freakin’ human race.

But then I saw this video of Beyoncé performing in Brazil, and my hope in humanity was restored.

Rem Rieder 09-18-2013

Al Jazeera America. Via RNS, Courtesy KAZVorpal via Flickr

Before its Aug. 20 launch, officials at Al-Jazeera America emphasized that, despite its Middle Eastern roots and ownership, the fledgling cable news network would be aimed squarely at a U.S. audience.

Guess they weren’t kidding.

A new study of cable news coverage of the Syria crisis released  found that the new kid on the block covered the fast-moving story of President Obama’s threat to strike the civil war-torn nation much the way its cable rivals did.

Cathleen Falsani 09-11-2013

If there were such a thing as “spiritual hazard pay” for columnists, I would be filing a claim after watching the first two episodes of the new series “Snake Salvation,” which debuts Tuesday, Sept. 10, on the National Geographic Channel.

God, I hate snakes. I find them utterly repellent; always have. When I was a toddler, my parents had to carry me out of the snake house at the zoo so I would stop screaming as if someone were trying to kill me.

Were it not for professional obligation — you’re welcome, by the way — you would sooner have found me shaving my head with a straight razor than watching a couple of hours of television dedicated to snake handling and its (alleged) spiritual import.

Cathleen Falsani 09-05-2013
Irish poet Seamus Heaney By Sean O'Connor [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Irish poet Seamus Heaney By Sean O'Connor [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

One of my favorite stories is about the interview I wanted most, but didn’t get.

It was 2005 and I had just signed a contract to write what would be my first book — a collection of profiles of mostly well-known people about their spiritual lives. Artists. Writers. Thinkers. Scientists. The odd rock star.

Sitting in my publisher’s office, she asked me to dream out loud: If I could interview anyone for the project, who was No. 1 on my wish list?

I answered without hesitation: Seamus Heaney.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan says Mass in Madrid in 2011, Jeffrey Bruno / Shutterstock

Cardinal Timothy Dolan says Mass in Madrid in 2011, Jeffrey Bruno /

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the most famous funny man in the American hierarchy, went on The Colbert Report Tuesday night to trade quips with another funny guy — and another well-known Catholic — host Stephen Colbert.

Indeed, as Colbert — inhabiting his onscreen persona as a blowhard rightwing pundit — said in welcoming Dolan: “You’re the second most famous Catholic in America – after myself.”

But it was actually Dolan who got the first gag, and giggles, as he walked onto the set and ostentatiously bowed and kissed Colbert’s hand as if he were greeting the pope.

“I’ve got to get a nice big ring if you’re going to be kissing my hand!” replied Colbert, who seemed — uncharacteristically —  unsure of how to play the exchange.

In fact, while Colbert was in full faux bloviating mode, he seemed to let Dolan set the pace of their chat; Colbert didn’t poke too hard on topics that could have prompted controversy.

Part of the relative deference may stem from the fact that Colbert is a serious Catholic who has taught Sunday school at his New Jersey parish. Or perhaps it was because Colbert knows Dolan personally, having appeared — out of character — at a forum on faith and humor last year at Fordham University. Or maybe Colbert was a bit out of practice: This was his first show after a two-week summer break, part of which he spent in Rome.

James Colten 09-03-2013
'I Was Wrong, I'm Sorry, and I Love You' album cover, via Facebook

'I Was Wrong, I'm Sorry, and I Love You' album cover, via Facebook

It’s been twenty years since I rose and cleared my throat
It’s been ten years since stood outside the church
- Derek Webb, I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry & I Love You

The first verse of the first song on the Derek Webb’s new album is a recap of his music career, from Caedman’s Call in the 90s to his solo career launched with She Must and Shall Go Free (2003). Since that first solo album, Webb has pushed all sorts of buttons in the church and the “Christian” music world. From albums Stockholm Syndrome (2009) to Sola Mi (2012) and Ctrl (2012), he’s pushed his own musical boundaries and themes, incorporating elements of hip-hop and electronica and veering away from his gospel-country-folk roots. 

I Was WrongI’m Sorry & I Love You releases today across the country. While you can buy the album online, it is also at a number of Christian retailers for only $4.99 (an unbelievable deal, I must say). It is a return to those gospel-country-folk roots while still embracing all he’s learned in the past 10 years of a solo career. The bright guitar sounds return alongside mellow synthesizers, and for some songs, a crowd-sourced chorus.

But more important than the sounds are the lyrics. They’re not snarky or sarcastic like earlier records Mockingbird and The Ringing Bell, but still raw and personal. 

Cathleen Falsani 09-03-2013
Singer-songwriter Sam Phillips, photographed in the Spring Arts Tower in Los Ang

Singer-songwriter Sam Phillips, photographed in the Spring Arts Tower in Los Angeles. Photo via RNS.

This world is so beautiful

For no reason at all

When life circles around

And you can’t see straight

– from “Can’t See Straight” by Sam Phillips

"Push Any Button,” the first new physical album in five years from singer-songwriter Sam Phillips, is a blithe, fetching exploration of life’s flip side — after the flush of youth, after the heartbreak, after the bottom falls out and the road bends and you head in a wholly unexpected direction that turns out to be exactly where you need to be.

“Push Any Button,” which dropped Aug. 13, looks to the future by examining the past, viewing both through a lens of stubborn (and optimistic) grace.

Christian Piatt 08-30-2013
Trey Pearson of Everyday Sunday, via Facebook

Trey Pearson of Everyday Sunday, via Facebook

Trey Pearson, front man and creative mind behind the band, Everyday Sunday, is in many ways the picture of a successful Contemporary Christian Music artist. He’s toured the world, played to thousands of fans at a time and sold hundreds of thousands of records. So I was intrigued when I sat down with him at the recent Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina to learn more about why this icon of Christian pop was going solo with his most recent record. 

How did you get started in the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) scene?

I was introduced to the scene as a teenager, finding out that people listened to "Christian music.” I started going to "Christian concerts,” and was inspired to write my own songs and have a band. I was already into performance art as a teenager from doing theater, musicals, acting, and modeling for commercials, print, and things of that nature. I grew up teaching myself piano, and was intrigued by the idea of playing songs for people. 

Given my background, I felt like I needed to do "Christian songs" to glorify God with my art. Long story short, after opening for several signed artists, I dropped out of college (after being on honor roll through my freshman year) to make an independent album and pursue a record deal. I went to Nashville, and knocked on doors until someone would listen. I signed a deal three months after I released my independent album.

Rachel Marie Stone 08-26-2013

My husband and I basically fell in love via AOL instant message conversations that led to daily email missives and then to phone calls and then, you know, to actually hanging out in person.

We knew each other in ‘real’ life but I was so afraid of saying something stupid in front of him that I basically ignored him, which, as it happens, is not a great way to indicate that you actually really like someone. But IM-ing made me bold.

So, in a way, You’ve Got Mail feels like one of “our” movies since it parallels our story just a little.

“Our” real movie is Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, which is a 1957 Swedish movie about a knight returning from the crusades during the Black Death who is engaged throughout the movie in a chess match with Death, so, yeah, basically the opposite of You’ve Got Mail.

We were both at a “movie night” at one of our professor’s homes. I’d known he was going to be there and wrote in my meticulous, OCD handwriting in my journal:

I’m so nervous because Tim Stone is going to be there and I don’t want to find him attractive.

Heaven forbid I find him attractive, right? I had clearly been a little too good at "Kissing Dating Goodbye" (thanks, Josh Harris!) In those days when someone asked me out for coffee I usually responded with horror, like they’d just ask me to help dispose of a body.

Jeffrey Weiss 08-21-2013
Steve Jobs The Economist cover, via Bill So /

Steve Jobs The Economist cover, via Bill So /

The new movie about Steve Jobs is short on anything explicitly religious. Like its main character, however, it’s got a thread of transcendence running through it.

The truth about Jobs and religion may be that, in this arena as in others, he was ahead of the cutting edge.

The film isn’t making the purists happy, in part because it takes too many liberties with history. But it’s not a documentary. I’ll go against many of the reviews and say that Ashton Kutcher does a pretty good job at representing the personality found in Jobs’ speeches and in what has been written about Jobs — particularly in the massive authorized biography by Walter Isaacson.

One quote in that book, from one of Jobs’ old girlfriends, pretty much captures the character in the film: “He was an enlightened being who was cruel,” she told Isaacson. “That’s a strange combination.”

Stacey Schwenker 08-21-2013

As people stepped on our toes and stood anxiously in front of us, waiting to exit the crowded theater, three of us sat weeping at the close of Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Even now, as I recall that moment, it brings tears to my eyes.

How do I describe the movie? Utterly intense. Remarkable. Heartbreaking. Inspiring. A genius capturing of the complexities of the Civil Rights Movement, of the history of race in America in the 20th and early 21st centuries, of presidential decision making, and of family.

I sat next to my colleague, Lisa Sharon Harper, who sobbed at the violence, tragedy, and passionate courage displayed on screen. It was a challenge. To be a white woman sitting next to an African-American woman as she wept over the suffering of her people — often at the hands of my people. It was neither her nor I who had perpetrated these specific acts, but we are certainly still caught in the tangled web of systemic racism and the histories that our ancestors have wrought us.

Even as we had waited in the theater prior to the movie's start, we spoke of serious subjects. She shared some of her lineage and the challenges of legal records that simply do not exist when ancestors are slaves or perhaps a Cherokee Indian who escaped the Trail of Tears in Kentucky and suddenly appears on the U.S. Census in 1850 as an adult. We spoke of her leadership in the church, and I encouraged her to continue speaking even though she is one of the lone women who graces the stages in front of national audiences. I told her, "You must do this so that other women who come after you can do this. You must do this for women right now. You must do this so that I can do this." We bonded over being women in ministry.

And then the separation came. I do not know Lisa's shoes — the road that she walks due to the color of her skin. I see her in all of her glory — passion, intelligence, creativity — and not in all of her blackness. Our world sees her with racial eyes.

Adam Ericksen 08-19-2013

Reza Aslan begins of his book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, with a prescient warning: “Scholars tend to see the Jesus they want to see. Too often they see themselves—their own reflection—in the image of Jesus they have constructed” (xxxi).

I don’t think Aslan had himself in mind when wrote that statement, but you should be warned: the Jesus in Zealot is Aslan’s own false construction.

His central thesis is that the Jesus of history, and the God Jesus believed in, demanded violence in the face of political and religious oppression. Here’s one of the relevant passages:

[F]or those seeking the simple Jewish peasant and charismatic preacher who lived in Palestine two thousand years ago, there is nothing more important than this one undeniable truth: the same God whom the Bible calls a “man of war”(Exodus 15:3), the God who repeatedly command the wholesale slaughter of every foreign man, woman, and child who occupies the land of the Jews, the “blood spattered God” of Abraham, and Moses, and Jacob, and Joshua (Isaiah 63:3) the God who “shatters the heads of his enemies,” bids his warriors to bathe their feet in their blood and leave their corpses to be eaten by dogs (Psalm 68:21-23)—that is the only God that Jesus knew and the sole God that he worshipped. (122, emphasis in the original.)

The problem that I have with this passage is indicative of the problem that I have with the way Aslan constructs his Jesus. He constantly picks and chooses which verses from the Bible he uses to support his claim that Jesus was a warrior messiah whose goal was to violently overthrow the Roman and religious establishment. He peels away all passages that conflict with his construction so that he can show us what Jesus was truly like.

Well, what Aslan thinks Jesus was truly like.

Adam Ericksen 08-16-2013
Fun.'s Nate Ruess performs live. Photo courtesy Tylertello/

Fun.'s Nate Ruess performs live. Photo courtesy Tylertello/

I love Fun.. I especially love the wacky period at the end of the band’s name. But my Word doc has the green squiggly line under the two periods of that first sentence. I hate that green squiggly line — it’s not fun. It’s there to tell me that I have bad grammar. Not this time, Word doc! I shall right click and ignore you!

Fun.’s (okay, now there’s a red line! Once again I shall ignore…) Some Nights is full of philosophical and spiritual gold. It asks questions about identity, friendship, violence, and the purpose of life. But, for me, these words stand out the most:

My heart is breaking for my sister and the con that she calls “love”

When I look into my nephew’s eyes…

Man, you wouldn’t believe the most amazing things that can come from…

Some terrible nights…ah…

Rachel Marie Stone 08-16-2013
Fresh slices of bread. Photo courtesy Yeko Photo Studio/

Fresh slices of bread. Photo courtesy Yeko Photo Studio/

I really did not like Michael Pollan's newest offeringCooked: A Natural History of Transformation. Here are three reasons why:

1. The premise feels phony and staged.

Pollan has said that he is “more at home in the garden than the kitchen” (In Defense of Food), but this modesty about his cooking skills is less than convincing to those who read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, in which he prepared a highly local meal of wild pork cooked two ways, bread leavened with wild yeasts he captured himself, and a sour cherry galette with fruit from Pollan’s own trees.

Menachem Wecker 08-16-2013
Rageh Omaar retraces the footsteps of the prophet in PBS’ “Life of Muhammad.” Ph

Rageh Omaar retraces the footsteps of the prophet in PBS’ “Life of Muhammad.” Photo via RNS/PBS.

He’s born poor. By age 6, he’s an orphan. Two years later, he loses his grandfather. Yet he overcomes his circumstances, develops a reputation for business integrity and progressive views on marriage.

Then he becomes a prophet of God.

The portrait of the Muslim prophet, which emerges from a PBS documentary “Life of Muhammad,” may surprise some American viewers.

Terrence Howard and Oprah Winfrey in a scene from “Lee Daniels’ ‘The Butler.’” P

Terrence Howard and Oprah Winfrey in a scene from “Lee Daniels’ ‘The Butler.’” Photo via RNS.

Eugene Allen served eight presidents as a White House butler, and his legendary career is the inspiration for Lee Daniels’ The Butler, a film starring Oprah Winfrey, Jane Fonda, and a host of A-list Hollywood talent.

But members of The Greater First Baptist Church knew the man who died in 2010 by other titles: usher, trustee, and a humble man of quiet faith.