Culture

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 4-23-2015
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 4-21-2015
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 4-21-2015

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.

Rick Barry 4-17-2015
Superman. Image via 'Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice' Instagram feed.

Superman. Image via 'Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice' Instagram feed.

Superman was introduced on his first page as a “champion of the oppressed…sworn to devote his existence to helping those in need.” Those actions are a fundamental expression of his identity, an inalienable product of who he is. Lara and the Kryptonian scientist Jor-El loved him enough to help him break away from their planet, giving him a chance at life. The farmers Jonathan and Martha Kent raised him in a way that left him intimate with humility and human frailty. Combine those with the confidence that comes with knowing that great power is a simple fact of his anthropology, and Superman can't help but position himself alongside society’s powerless. Crime will always find him because he loves its victims. 

Batman, on the other hand, does not act in response to people he loves. He acts in response to people he hates. At heart, he is still a child overwhelmed by loss and obsessed with lashing back against those that inflicted it upon him. Bruce Wayne (a name cobbled together by his writers so as to leave the reader with a fragrance of colonialism) created the Batman identity and fights crime in his home city so that he can re-shape the world as he sees fit. He was first introduced to readers as fighting a “lone battle against the evil forces of society,” and fighting that battle has always been the measure by which the character has justified his own existence. 

For any Christian who cares enough about social justice to be reading Sojourner’s website, this raises a compelling series of questions: Are you working to make the world more just because you are confident that your Father loves the victims of injustice? Because your King voluntarily shared the plight of the humble? Because you know that the Spirit will make all things new and you want to be a part of giving people a foretaste of that now? Or are you pursuing justice because you’re afraid of what the world will look like if you don’t? Because you can’t see your own value if you aren't "fighting the good fight?"

Crusaders. Image via RNS/anonymous master/Wikimedia Commons

Crusaders. Image via RNS/anonymous master/Wikimedia Commons

The pieces of the religious puzzle that make up the USA Network’s biblical conspiracy action series Dig are beginning to fall into place, and the picture they are revealing is one of history — highlighted by a colorful streak of fiction.

Here be spoilers! Read on only if you are up-to-date with the 10-part series, or want to ruin it for yourself and others.

“Order of Moriah”

This secret religious order, supposedly dating from the Crusades, seems to be a product of the Dig writers’ imaginations. But, like many of the show’s fictional aspects, it is based on historical fact.

The Crusades, which mainly took place from 1095 to 1291, were an attempt by the Rome-based Catholic Church to retake the Holy Land — Jerusalem and its environs — away from its Muslim rulers.

During that time, the church founded several monastic religious orders whose members traveled to Jerusalem. Some fought with the armies, some cared for the wounded and sick. The most famous of these orders were the Knights Hospitallers, the Knights Teutonic, and the Knights Templar.

It is perhaps the Templars that the Order of Moriah is based on. Officially named “The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon,” the Knights Templar were anything but poor. They owned land from Rome to Jerusalem and were involved in finance throughout the Christian world. They loaned money to King Philip IV of France and the church.

Maria Puente 4-16-2015
Photo via REUTERS / Ammar Awad / RNS

Kim Kardashian leaves the Cathedral of Saint James in Jerusalem’s Old City. Photo via REUTERS / Ammar Awad / RNS

This has gotta be a first: Kim Kardashian is not in the picture.

But it’s happened, in Israel, on an ultra-Orthodox Jewish news website, which covered or blurred her face in a picture taken of her during her stopover in Jerusalem this week.

Kim and husband Kanye West had dinner on April 13 with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, but the picture of the three of them was altered.

It showed only Kanye and the mayor, with Kim’s face covered by a picture of a receipt or just blurred to the point of oblivion.

Nissim Ben Haim, an editor at the Kikar HaShabbat website, said April 15 they removed Kim because she is a “pornographic symbol” who contradicts ultra-Orthodox values, according to The Associated Press.

The website wasn’t too happy with Barkat, either, because he dined with the couple at a high-end but non-kosher restaurant, and supposedly the bill was was nearly $700.

In its article, the website referred to Kim as merely “West’s wife,” which must have been amusing to both.

Mark Lockard 4-15-2015
Image courtesy Marvel's Daredevil on Facebook

Image courtesy Marvel's Daredevil on Facebook

Like many comic book fans, I spent the weekend binging on Daredevil, Marvel’s newest release. The entire first season was created for Netflix, and it dropped in its entirety on Friday. I waited until Saturday night to dig in (longer than some friends of mine), and I was hooked from the opening scene.

It's a scene that opens with Matt Murdock (lawyer-by-day alter ego of the masked vigilante Daredevil) sitting in a confessional. He begins by telling the priest about his father, a boxer who fought harder than his record could ever show. He ends the conversation by asking not for penance, but for future forgiveness — forgiveness for what he’s about to do. “That’s not how this works,” the priest says.

Yet so much of how Murdock as Daredevil works in this latest iteration of the character is how we want it to work. Based closely on Frank Miller’s writing of the character, Daredevil proves to be someone who deals justice unflinchingly. This isn’t someone who hesitates when the situation allows for a grim, overly firm hand. Contrast this with Batman, a character who struggles to commit severe violence even when it seems to be the only option.

Photo via Adelle M. Banks / RNS

First lady Michelle Obama welcomes students to the White House on April 14, 2015. Photo via Adelle M. Banks / RNS

First lady Michelle Obama hosted a discussion with musicians and students on gospel music at the White House on April 14, praising gospel’s role as “a ray of hope” in American history.

“Gospel music has really played such an important role in our country’s history,” she told more than 100 students gathered in the State Dining Room, “from the spirituals sung by slaves, to the anthems that became the soundtrack of the civil rights movement, and to the hymns that millions of Americans sing every single day in churches all across the country.”

Here are some of the lessons learned during the 75-minute event, where Grammy Museum Executive Director Bob Santelli interviewed a panel of singers and songwriters ahead of a star-studded concert that will air on PBS on June 26 as part of the “In Performance at the White House” series.

1. Gospel music is personal for the first lady.

“I’m really thrilled that we’re really focusing on gospel,” Obama said of the series that has previously featured classical, country, and soul music.

“It’s something that I wanted to do since we started.”

Ken Chitwood 4-13-2015
Photo via Mohammad Izzraimy, Izzraimy.com / RNS

Model Firman Nazirulhasif wears Boston-based Munir Hassan’s clothing line. Photo via Mohammad Izzraimy, Izzraimy.com / RNS

Radical Muslims. The phrase elicits images of ISIS militants and terror in the desert, perhaps grainy YouTube videos, Kalashnikovs, and raised fists.

What about a man in an ankle-length garment and cotton headscarf carving the air with his skateboard?

Is that a radical Muslim?

Along with shirts bearing the “Radical Muslims” image and a Nike-like swoosh saying “Just Dua It” (dua being nonobligatory Muslim prayer, or supplications), Boston-based Munir Hassan has created an entire line of stereotype-shattering clothing for American Muslims.

In an explicit attempt to flip the script on popular images of Muslims and Islamic symbols, Hassan’s own Sidikii Clothing Co. merges cultures in fashion-forward, Muslim inspired designs.

“I’m Muslim, I’m American. I was born both,” said Hassan.

“I wanted to design clothing that showcased different pieces of my culture inclusively.”

Photo by Ronen Akerman / USA Network / RNS

A scene from the “Dig” pilot Episode 101. Photo by Ronen Akerman / USA Network / RNS

Archaic prayers, hidden keys, and secret religious orders — such are the elements of the latest episode of the USA Network’s biblical conspiracy action series Dig.

Add in a modern re-enactment of one of the most harrowing stories in the Hebrew Bible, and the result is a swirling, baffling stew of religious themes and imagery.

This is your spoiler alert! Read on if you are up to date on Dig or a glutton for punishment.

“It’s all about the End of Days, the Second Coming, Armageddon, the Rapture,” Debbie (Lauren Ambrose) says in what is the clearest explanation by any character of what is going on in Dig to date.

“In order to bring about the Second Coming, the Temple in Jerusalem needs to be rebuilt.”

Here’s a quick summary of some of the religion references in this week’s episode:

Scott Christian 4-10-2015
Photo via Fotocafe Photography / RNS

A collection of Julia Chew is showcased during 2015 Christian Fashion Week. Photo via Fotocafe Photography / RNS

If someone offered you the chance to live in a world designed to look and feel like the real one, but is actually a tidier, more ordered Stepford-ish facsimile, would you take it? For many Christians today, the answer appears to be yes.

Call it Newton’s Third Law of modern Christianity, but for every event, there appears to be an equal and opposite corresponding Christian event. There are Christian music festivals and book festivals; Christian versions of TED Talks; the upcoming International Christian Film Festival in Orlando, Fla.; and earlier this month, even a Christian Fashion Week.

While it might seem tempting for Christians to lock themselves away in anti-secular bubbles, where they could wear nothing but Christian clothing and eat nothing but Christian food (Chick-fil-A, I’m guessing?), the ramifications of doing so are polarizing at best, and deeply destructive at worst.

Just look at the recent spate of religious freedom laws being passed around the country. Regardless of whether you view the RFRAs as discriminatory or necessary, the nut of their existence essentially boils down to separateness.

At their core, they are laws designed to keep one group of people from being forced to interact with another.

Abby Olcese 4-07-2015
Screenshot from 'The Salt of the Earth' trailer.

Screenshot from 'The Salt of the Earth' trailer.

Why do we engage with art? What is about a poem, painting, film, or photograph that can sometimes make them rank among the most impactful experiences of our lives? Sure, skill has a lot to do with it. Aesthetics and story do, too. But one of the things, perhaps the biggest thing that makes art art, and which gives it that extra emotional oomph, is perspective.

Perspective can mean many things. It can mean the point of view from which a story is told. It can mean the way in which something is presented visually; looking down from above, for example, or up from below. More expansively (and when it’s done well), perspective means using all of these to express the worldview of the artist, communicating their thoughts about a subject, or a place, or even just life in general, by what they choose to show us and how they choose to show it.

The Salt of the Earth, Oscar-nominated this year for Best Documentary, is a film about Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado. But it’s also a film about perspectives. Not just Salgado’s, shown through his life and his art, but also the perspectives of the film’s two directors, the photographer’s son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, and German New Wave auteur Wim Wenders (the director of Wings of Desire and Paris, Texas). Each man approaches the subject with a different point of view — Salgado recounting his own experiences, Juliano as the son who grew up with an often absent father, and Wenders as a fellow artist and long-time admirer of Salgado’s work.

Angela Denker 4-02-2015
Hozier, photo via Hozier.com

Hozier, photo via Hozier.com

All Holy Week, I've been listening to Hozier's “Take Me to Church” — an odd sort of spiritual exercise, I suppose.

At first it was the hauntingly catchy refrain: “Take Me to Church” — and after all I would be going to church all week this week, the holiest of weeks in the Christian calendar. Maundy, or Holy, Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil, Easter Sunday.

The refrain was jarring against the artist's desired impact of the song, that in fact no one would be taken to church, that no one would trust the institutional church that has proven so dogmatic, divisive, violent, and decidedly un-Christlike in its practice as to become "a fresh poison each week."

“Take Me to Church” is about sexuality, about dogma, about prayer, about worship, about heaven, hell, life, death, sacrifice, sin, confession, and absolution. It’s about Catholicism and Protestantism and Jesus and atheism and fear and hope and love.

We each see pieces of it. Many American viewers saw Hozier's music video and wrongly assumed he was gay — that the sum of his message was about the church's persecution of homosexuality. And even though Hozier is not gay, he did mean to indict the church for its horrible treatment of the LGBTQ community — but the message of his song goes beyond sexuality.

Hozier is an Irish singer, a man who grew up with the deadly legacy of Catholic-Protestant war, a man whose national church was beset by sexual abuse scandals and pews full of dogmatic believers who had never read the Bible. Masses in many cases were dominated by ritual and women and babies sent away to church-run facilities, like the one where the bodies of nearly 800 infants were recently found in an unmarked mass grave.

Americans can look on the Irish church with judgment, yet our own church scandals and hypocrisy can fill even more pages.

As a pastor looking toward Easter Sunday 2015, I see something else in these lyrics. I see and hear a deep longing. Not only for sex. But a longing for the God who came to earth in Jesus, who died and rose again because of love.

I asked colleagues and friends about their responses to this song, as it dominates airwaves during Holy Week, and no one seemed to want to broach the topic. Too sexual, some said. Another, that "it could not be redeemed." Another, that "people would be too offended."

Ed Spivey Jr. 4-02-2015

...like the Koch brothers, who have really nice bootstraps. 

Gareth Higgins 4-02-2015

The extraordinary film Leviathan takes place in a tiny coastal town on the other side of the world, but it relates to all our dreams and fears.

Photo via Joe Alblas / LightWorkers Media / NBC / RNS

John, Mother Mary, and Mary Magdalene in “A.D. The Bible Continues.” Photo via Joe Alblas / LightWorkers Media / NBC / RNS

When The Bible miniseries premiered two years ago, controversy swirled around its depiction of a dark-skinned Satan who some said resembled President Obama, as well as its portrayal of white main characters in the Moroccan landscape.

Fast-forward to the premiere of the sequel, A.D. The Bible Continues, on Easter Sunday (April 5), and you’ll see a decidedly more multicultural cast, the result of “honest” conversations between black church leaders and the filmmakers, Hollywood power couple Mark Burnett and Roma Downey.

“For too long religious programming has neither reflected the look of biblical times or the diversity of the church today,” tweeted the Rev. Barbara Williams-Skinner, a Maryland-based black activist, writer and scholar.

“We made this point to Mark and Roma after #BibleSeries, and quite frankly they listened. I’m glad for that.”

Now, in a partnership with the 12-part NBC miniseries, an African-American Christian publishing house will host online resources to help viewers connect the holy book to Africa.

Singer-songwriter Angaleena Presley paints a heartbreaking picture of what Appalachia has become. 

Lisa Dordal 4-01-2015

You hear a voice speaking
about a bird dragging its dark universe
of feathers across your yard,
and you realize it must be you

telling the boy how you carried its body
beyond the ambit of your dogs.
One eye, round as a coin,
fixing fear upon you, the other,

half shut. How the bird hauled
its body back into your yard,
dying with a will you could only
admire. Am I the bird?, the boy asks.

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