Culture

On God’s Side: For the Common Good

Jim Wallis at the Lincoln Memorial. Photo by Brandon Hook / Sojourners
Jim Wallis at the Lincoln Memorial. Photo by Brandon Hook / Sojourners

A revealing thing happens when you remove yourself from the daily drum of politics and become a mere observer. I did just that last year, during some of the most divisive moments of the presidential election. Sitting back and watching the deluge of insults and accusations that feeds our political system, I witnessed the worst of us as a nation. And I came to the conclusion that it’s time to reframe our priorities.

When did we trade the idea of public servants for the false idols of power and privilege? When did we trade governing for campaigning? And when did we trade valuing those with the best ideas for rewarding those with the most money?

We’ve lost something as a nation when we can no longer look at one another as people, as Americans, and — for people of faith  — as brothers and sisters.  Differing opinions have become worst enemies and political parties have devolved into nothing more than petty games of blame.

During a three-month sabbatical, observing this mess we’ve gotten ourselves into, I prayed, meditated, read — and then I put pen to paper. The resulting book gets to the root of what I believe is the answer to our current state of unrest. It is not about right and left — or merely about partisan politics — but rather about the quality of our life together. It's about moving beyond the political ideologies that have both polarized and paralyzed us, by regaining a moral compass for both our public and personal lives — by reclaiming an ancient yet urgently timely idea: the common good.

What Do You Mean, 'Open,' Rob? (Rob Bell Blogalogue Part 3)

Open-mindedness illustration, yeahorse / Shutterstock.com
Open-mindedness illustration, yeahorse / Shutterstock.com

This is going to be a problem. This chapter on faith and science and quantum mechanics is going to be a problem. Why? Well, because this faith and science thing has been done to death. Did you know that the Vatican has an observatory and that one of the authors of Red Shift Theory was a Jesuit? Yep. The famed Scopes Monkey Trial was more than a century ago and those of us in the Protestant Mainline have long ago made peace with it. The Vatican apologized for the oppression of scientists, most specifically it said that Galileo was right. Scientific inquiry and Biblical interpretation are not the same thing. So what's Rob's purpose for this chapter?

Well, it's manifold. He's an evangelical. He's writing in some ways to other evangelicals, specifically those who have felt cut off from the tradition. Here in the States, the classic evangelical line holds echoes of the arguments used during the Scopes Monkey Trial. Some in that Christian tradition are still fighting that fight. Heck, some progressives are, too. Powerful (if false) dichotomies have been established. 

‘The Bible’ Producers Deny Their Satan Resembles Obama

Satan in the miniseries “The Bible.” Photo courtesy of The History Channel
Satan in the miniseries “The Bible.” Photo courtesy of The History Channel

The producers of History Channel’s The Bible fended off claims Monday that the actor who plays Satan in the miniseries resembles President Barack Obama.

Executive producers Mark Burnett, who created Survivor, and his wife, the actress Roma Downey, described the comparisons as “utter nonsense.”

“Both Mark and I have nothing but respect and love for our President, who is a fellow Christian. False statements such as these are just designed as a foolish distraction to try and discredit the beauty of the story of the Bible,” according to a statement from Downey, who starred in the television show Touched by an Angel.

Mehdi Ouazaani, the Moroccan actor who portrays Satan, has played satanic roles prior to his work on The Bible, the statement said.

The social media sphere blew up with the comparison Sunday night, which was touted by  conservative commentator Glenn Beck, among others.

PHOTOS: Rebuilding Notre Dame l’Assomption Cathedral

Three years after the 2010 earthquake devastated Haiti, the impoverished island nation is still struggling to rebuild. The ruins include Notre Dame de l’Assomption, Port-au-Prince’s renowned cathedral.

Hope abounds, however, as the capital city seeks to reconstruct this sacred place of worship. Edwidge Danticat’s “House of Prayer and Dreams,” in the April 2013 issue of Sojourners magazine, beautifully illustrates why the cathedral is central to the city’s past, present, and future.

A source of national pride and inspiration, the people of Haiti are committed to rebuilding Notre Dame de l’Assomption.

View the slideshow below, including photos of the cathedral’s future design (courtesy of ndapap.org).

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The Real Reason Americans Love Guns

THE DAY BEFORE President Obama's second inauguration (campaign code name: "Neener, neener, neener!"), Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell sent an email to constituents with a message somewhat lacking in a spirit of new beginnings: "The gun-grabbers in the Senate are about to launch an all-out assault on the Second Amendment. They're coming for your guns."

This is disturbing. I don't have any guns, but I'm looking for places to hide them. And without guns, how will I protect my family from the coming assault? Can I hold off federal agents by flinging small appliances at them? Those I've got. In fact, I just got a new hand mixer. It's black and sleek, like the helicopters that will soon be circling over our homes. (Helicopter tip: Make sure the rotor blades have completely stopped before licking off the icing.)

Under Obama's new proposals, I'll probably have to register my appliances, or at least submit to a background check before I buy another one. Although I've heard you can avoid that if you get them at private appliance shows.

This latest attention to gun control prompted National Rifle Association leader Wayne LaPierre to take the stage and, looking directly into the eyes of the American people, vehemently deny that he is French. Additionally, he helpfully pointed out that "the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." Or was it the other way around? To be honest I'm not sure what he said, because I got distracted by the wild look in his eyes, and the bits of saliva that gather in the corners of his mouth whenever he talks about guns. This guy really likes guns.

What I would ask Mr. "LaPierre" [giggle]—while keeping both hands out where he could see them—is this: How do you stop a good guy with a gun who's having a bad day? Or what if he's really depressed or angry at his boss for not allowing him to wear camouflage clothing to staff meetings?

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Converted, But Still Wrestling

SOME BOOKS MAKE you want to sit down with the author on a sunny afternoon for a nice cup of tea. You would be excited to talk about how the book resonated with your own journey. For me, From Willow Creek to Sacred Heart: Rekindling My Love for Catholicism, by Chris Haw, is such a book.

Haw, a young, passionate, and deeply self-reflective theologian, shares his spiritual memoir. Part one recounts Haw's faith journey from a childhood as a lukewarm Catholic to teenage years at the evangelical megachurch Willow Creek, to college—including brief but powerful months in Belize, as well as days of protest against the Iraq war—and eventually to his present life in the apocalyptic landscape of Camden, N.J., where he returned to the Catholic Church.

Part two presents Haw's theological reflections on a variety of questions he has raised along his journey. He also focuses on common objections against the Catholic Church, such as the nature of the Mass as a sacrifice, the church's reliance on human tradition over the Bible, its hierarchical system, alleged ritualism, embellished architecture and ornaments, devastating scandals—including child molestation—and so on. Haw explores such challenging issues thoughtfully and courageously, while humbly accepting that he still struggles with them. Despite it all, Haw longs to see beauty and hope furthered through the Catholic Church.

I am a Catholic convert. I was raised in a Methodist family and trained in Protestant seminaries. By the time I decided to convert to Catholicism, I was starting my first year in the doctoral program of theological studies at Emory University. Feminist theology played a central role in both my theological education and spiritual formation, and it continues to today.

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An Unhindered Hope

IN EARLY AUGUST 2010, 10 aid workers were murdered, execution-style, in the province of Badakhshan, in northeastern Afghanistan. Among them were six Americans, two Afghans, a Briton, and a German, all part of a medical mission. It was the deadliest attack on aid workers the country had seen.

Dan Terry, 63, an American humanitarian who, with his family, had called Afghanistan home for more than 30 years, was among the dead.

What compels a person to risk his or her life in a foreign land so riddled with conflict? For Terry it was simple—he was called to a life of peacemaking and service.

A friend of Terry's since childhood, writer Jonathan Larson draws us into Terry's passionate character and the vision he shared with friends in Afghanistan: reconciliation and dialogue. "In the end, we're all knotted into the same carpet," Terry was fond of saying. From a swath of interviews with family, friends, and colleagues, both Western and Afghan, Larson has assembled "oral narratives," sharing with us the exhilarating life of a generous and gentle man, heroic but humble.

The best advice I received as a humanitarian aid worker in Afghanistan was from a leader cut from the same cloth as Terry: "Make no assumptions" and "listen first." We too often accept media caricatures of the other, labels that shut down discourse and clamp off possibility and hope. Challenging this, Terry insisted on the unwavering potential of each person he met. "Categorical 'enemies' have rescued me ... again and again," he once wrote to friends.

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The Church's Alternative Currency

DANIEL BELL'SThe Economy of Desire juxtaposes Christianity and capitalism, situating both in the context of postmodernity. The main argument of the book is that performing works of mercy—both corporal and spiritual—constitutes an alternative economy that can resist capitalism. Capitalism, in Bell's construal, is an economic system founded on voluntary contracts, private property, and an ideological regime where the rule of the market transcends the rule of law and disregards the reign of God in Christ.

The author draws on the work of philosophers Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze to set up a philosophical framework for talking about power and desire. His treatment of Foucaultian insights on the ubiquity of power is meant to decenter the state as the primary engine of social change. Deleuze's work builds on Foucault's argument by conceptualizing people—and society at large—as flows of desire. Taken together, the claim is potentially but not necessarily democratic: Social structures organize desire in particular ways and are malleable due to the fact that power resides not only in the state or market but in the relational networks of everyday people. Under this account, for instance, the typical presidential election is not simply about securing votes, but about directing the aspirations and actions of the electorate toward a collective passion for growing the economy, expanding the middle class, and so on. Capitalism, for Bell, secures our loyalty because it shapes what we do as well as what we desire.

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Time to Start Talking

A scene from the video game Call of Duty.

THE CEO OF one of the world's most popular video-game manufacturers recently denied any relationship between his products (some of which have their users re-enact mass slaughter) and real killing. The substance of such denial appeared to some to be no more complex than "because I said so, and some other people agree with me." Meanwhile, in the immediate aftermath of the Aurora movie theater shootings last year, Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein called for a summit of directors to discuss their imaginary guns. He later acknowledged that "I don't have the answers to these questions. ... They're so complicated; you need people with better facts and intelligence. In this situation I have to be a follower, not a leader." Refreshing humility from someone better known for bluster and self-assurance, now opening a door to a conversation on which lives may depend.

Film critics, too, have a responsibility to contribute to this conversation, so let me propose some ideas:

1. Portrayal and advocacy are not the same thing. The violence of Reservoir Dogs and Looper may be visceral, but it tells the truth about the suffering that guns and knives can inflict and may help people think twice about enacting real violence. The violence ofHome Alone andTransformers may be cartoonish, but it lies to the audience and may fuel appetites for further destruction.

2. The shape of the narrative arc may be more influential than any particular acts of violence. Our culture seems to be addicted to the idea that order can be brought out of chaos by ultimate force, that violence can literally "cleanse the world." This myth—this religion—shows up everywhere, not just in the movies. Indeed, it is a keystone of our politics. The best thing movies can do about it is to tell a different story.

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Guns, Culture, and Sanity

I DON'T OWN any guns, and I've only fired them at inanimate objects, but I live in the country, so guns are a part of my life.

During deer season, the woods around our place sometimes sound like Baghdad circa 2006. We used to have a close neighbor who regularly fired a gun in his backyard, usually on Sunday afternoons—at what, we're not entirely sure. Our family has a three-legged dog that lost his right rear appendage to a gunshot wound. Our kids in Boy Scouts get gun safety training and rifle and shotgun shooting lessons in a program certified by the National Rifle Association.

So when the gun control debate heats up, as it has since the Sandy Hook School massacre, I come down with a serious case of mixed feelings. I think rural gun lovers are at least partly right when they say that urban gun control advocates look down on them as ignorant primitives. Many city people, and I'd dare say most urban liberals, don't understand the rural culture of hunting and shooting and can't be bothered to expend the moral energy that act of empathy would require. For me, that part of the gun control discussion pushes the same outrage buttons that go off when an economist says people in dying rural communities just need to move, or when someone else suggests eliminating all farm subsidies from the federal budget. Such comments betray the fact that the speakers neither know, nor care, about rural communities and rural culture.

On the other hand, fear of outsiders is also a part of rural culture. Groups like the NRA, and gun manufacturers themselves, have done a pretty good job of exploiting that flaw, to the point that some of my neighbors are convinced that they need assault weapons to defend themselves against some vague, unnamable "them." And my experience of rural life, which has all been in the South, confirms that this can apply doubly or triply to "outsiders" with a different skin color.

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