Culture

Pope Francis Hasn’t Watched TV Since 1990. Here Are Some Key Moments He Missed

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.

The Cheery Optimism of 'Tomorrowland'

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.

The Redemption of Don Draper

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.

The Sneaky Progressivism of 'Mad Max: Fury Road'

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.

A Sacred Beat

AT THE WORLD Christian Gathering of Indigenous People in 1996, our North American Native delegation was unable to find any “Christian” Native powwow music that we could use to dance to as part of our entrance into the auditorium. This was important at the time, as we didn’t feel the liberty to use “non-Christian” powwow music for a distinctly Christian event. A contemporary Christian song by a Caucasian worship leader using some Native words and a good beat was selected.

Except in a handful of cases (believers among the Kiowa, Seminole, Comanche, Dakota, Creek, and Crow tribes, to name some)—and those always in a local tribal context—Native believers were not allowed or encouraged to write new praise or worship music in their own languages utilizing their own tribal instruments, style, and arrangements.

What they were encouraged to do was translate Western-style music, hymns, and songs (for example, “How Great Thou Art,” “Amazing Grace,” “The Old Rugged Cross,” “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”) into their own languages, fully retaining Western cultural musical constructs.

Participation in traditional powwows, with their key features of drumming/singing and dancing, for many Native Christians has been discouraged or forbidden. Long considered a seditious threat to government control and an obstacle to the evangelization of tribal people, there was a long-concerted effort on the part of the U.S. government and missionary organizations and workers to put an end to these practices. Were it solely in the hands of some Native evangelicals to determine what Native ceremonies, rituals, or other cultural practices would be allowed, all would disappear forever, considered by the historic evangelical mission position to be “of the devil,” thus requiring total elimination.

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New & Noteworthy

Contemporary History
The duo Ibeyi are Naomi and Lisa-Kaindé Díaz, 19-year-old French-Cuban twins with Yoruba roots—a West African culture transplanted to Cuba during slavery. Ibeyi’s self-titled album begins and ends in prayer; in between is a fusion of English and Yoruba, minimalist piano and percussion, jazz and hip hop. XL Recordings

Preach It
The Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann, Volume 2 brings together more than 50 sermons by the biblical scholar and powerful preacher, arranged according to the liturgical year. Also includes special-occasion sermons and a scripture index. A good resource for pastors and laity alike. Westminster John Knox

Sketching the Word
In And the Word Became Color: Exploring the Bible with Paper, Pen, and Paint, artist and teacher Debby Topliff describes what she calls “visual lectio divina”—a method of Bible study that incorporates simple line drawings. Debbytopliff.com

Soul Seedlings
Faith Forward Volume 2: Re-imagining Children’s and Youth Ministry collects stories, insights, and models from the 2014 Faith Forward gathering on nurturing the spiritual lives of young people. Edited by David M. Csinos and Melvin Bray, with a foreword by Jennifer Knapp. CopperHouse

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Improving Our Safety Net

WITH A LONG history of involvement in the evolution of the Social Security program, Nancy Altman and Eric Kingson are the right analysts to explain the program and demonstrate conclusively that, with careful tending by Congress, Social Security will be there for future generations: a critical part of retirement finances for the vast majority of the American people and, for many, the only retirement support. They argue that Congress should be strengthening and expanding Social Security—and they show how this can be done and the bill paid.

The book makes clear that Social Security is not an entitlement program but a social insurance program with premiums paid through payroll taxes. Its $2.8 trillion trust fund represents the full-faith support of the American people to provide essential insurance coverage for all our people against the universal hazards of death, disability, and old age. It compares how our system stacks up against those of other advanced industrial societies. (We are distinctly less generous to our senior citizens than other developed nations.)

Primarily through the death and disability provisions, Social Security also provides the largest amount of support to children of any federal program, keeping millions of children above the poverty line. Indirect support—helping people not have to bear the full financial burden of caring for elderly parents whose financial independence is assisted through both Social Security and Medicare—increases the number of beneficiaries further.

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Escaping The Bonds Of Privilege

REBECCA TODD PETERS offers here a concise treatment of the major moral concern of a large part of Christian social ethics: the structures of globalized economic life and their manifest injustices and unsustainability. She also offers a moral framework to guide the thinking of unjustly, and often blindly, privileged First World Christians about the moral situation in which we find ourselves.

She proposes concrete action guides for how such First World Christians can gradually and intentionally empty ourselves of these privileges in order to stand in solidarity with those whose lives are harmed in the delivery of our advantages. In the end what emerges is a kind of liberation ethics for those who didn’t know they needed to be liberated—in this case, from their own advantages.

More and more primers are being written to help privileged North Americans gain some idea of what exactly it takes for us to enjoy those “everyday low prices” over at the big box store. It should not be so difficult; after all, we can just look at the labels and read on the internet about the people over in Bangladesh and Thailand who work in inhumane conditions to get us our superfluous T-shirts for $4.99.

Peters briskly takes us into the two-thirds world and lets us catch a glimpse of who really pays the price for the consumer goods we enjoy. But especially valuable is her survey of the “neoliberal” and indeed “neocolonial” economic and political structures (trade deals, IMF, etc.) that fix the current regime in place so that the cheap exploited labor of, let’s face it, brown bodies continues to serve the comfort of white bodies in the Northern Hemisphere, all in the name of free-market capitalism and free trade.

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'That Song You Sing For The Dead'

BIBLICAL LAMENT includes both pleas to God for help and mournful dirges. Sometimes they are rooted in individual travails and grief, other times in anguish for those crushed by injustice or war.

The psalmist and the prophets dig deep into visceral images of bodily suffering—and stretch up, out, yearning to find symbols and metaphors in nature that might capture the mercy and presence of a God who, the psalmist isn’t afraid to say, is sometimes a bit elusive.

The album Carrie & Lowell is indie musician Sufjan Stevens’ multifaceted lament: For a mother, Carrie, he lost at least twice—to mental illness, addiction, and abandonment when he was a child and to cancer when he was a man. For the grief that surprised him after her death. For his inability, as he sings to his mother, to “save you from your sorrow,” hinting at that lingering, impossible guilt felt by so many children of troubled parents. Stevens reaches no tidy resolution in the course of the work (although early on, in the first song, he does offer that most basic, difficult, and saving grace: “I forgive you, mother”).

So why would you want to listen to something that speaks of so much pain? For starters, these are exquisitely spare, beautiful, and haunting folk-not-quite-rock songs. Stevens’ gift for hook and melody here is distilled, deceptively delicate, carried by few instruments and subtle effects. Layered vocals and harmonies swell up on a bridge or carry a song wordlessly to the end, like waiting choruses of angels, or ghosts.

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Preparing For The Storm

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.

 

Remember how Gandhi’s salt marchers
lay themselves before the horses
of the Raj that trotted to the very edge
of that sea of prostrate bodies
before rearing back in alarm?

Those marchers knew a storm
was brewing, were neither cowed,
nor crushed. The heart is another kind
of stallion, stamping and kicking,
trampling the mind’s sour dust.

Lie down, lie down, there is still time.
And watch the horses prance.

Richard Schiffman is an environmental journalist and poet. His collection What the Dust Doesn’t Know is forthcoming from Salmon Press. Above, an Indian police officer attacks salt marchers in 1930.

Image: Ninh Hoa, Vietnam,  / Shutterstock 

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