A Newsfeed of Fear

I GREW UP terrified, my childhood catechized by the violence in Northern Ireland, each week a litany of murder. I grew used to the idea that killing was the story of our lives. This, of course, was not true—there was also beauty and friendship all around us, all the time, not to mention eventually a peace process that has delivered extraordinary cooperation between former sworn enemies.

But the way we learned to tell the story—from political and cultural leaders, religion, and the media—emphasized the darkness. It’s been a long and still ongoing journey for me to discern how to honor real suffering while overcoming the lie that things are getting worse.

Today, many of us are living with a fear that seems hard to shake. Horrifying, brutal videos, edited for maximum sinister impact, showing up in our newsfeeds are only the most recent example of how terror seems to blend into our everyday lives.

But things are not as bad as we think. What social scientists call the “availability heuristic” helps explain why we humans find it difficult to accurately predict probability. In short, we guess the likelihood of something happening based on how easily we can recall examples of something similar having happened before. Because of this, folk who get a lot of “information” from mainstream media may tend to overestimate the murder rate: Most of us have seen vastly more killing on TV than would ever compute to an accurate estimate of real-world rates of killing.

Globalization and cyberspace bring more images and stories than our brains can handle, blending them with our lives to the extent that we consciously have to work to create boundaries between our screens and our psyches. One consequence is that people are skeptical when told that violence has been declining over time, and we are living in what is probably the most peaceful era human beings have ever known. But it’s true.

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Jesus Is All Over the Small Screen, and That’s No Accident

Photo via NBC Universal / RNS

Diogo Morgado in Son of God. Photo via Casey Crafford/LightWorkers Media LLC/Hearst Productions/Telemundo/ NBC Universal / RNS

Need proof that biblical entertainment is Hollywood’s holiest trend? Then look no further than Morocco, where three TV projects — National Geographic Channel’s Killing Jesus, NBC’s A.D. The Bible Continues and CNN’s Finding Jesus — were filmed on neighboring sets last year.

“You got this kind of Life of Brian-esque world you’re living in, where on all of our days off, there’s 36 disciples sitting around the pool and three Jesuses at the bar,” said actor Stephen Moyer, who ditched the fangs from True Blood to play Roman governor Pontius Pilate in the Ridley Scott-produced Killing Jesus.

Based on Fox News host Bil O’Reilly’s follow-up to the books he co-wrote with Martin Dugard, Killing Lincoln and Killing KennedyKilling Jesus tracks the last days of the Christian Messiah. Played by Muslim actor Haaz Sleiman, he is portrayed less as a miracle worker and more as a political threat, and the script heightens the sexual tension between Jesus and follower Mary Magdalene (Klara Issova).

“It plays with the idea that Jesus’ teachings are more important than the doing of miracles, that the idea behind what he’s saying is the point and it doesn’t need to have out-of-body, magical elements happening,” Moyer said.

'It Follows' Explores the Spirituality of Horror

Screenshot from 'It Follows' trailer.

Screenshot from 'It Follows' trailer.

Should Christians like horror movies?

It’s a question that many a Christ-following cinema junkie has had to ask themselves. It’s hard not to feel a bit conflicted enjoying a zombie apocalypse or a masked maniac when peace and tolerance are core parts of your belief system. If we’re going to be discerning consumers of culture, what value is there in horror?

I could pose one of a dozen different possible answers, each with their own set of arguments — for example, how the collective act of yelling in the dark at a dumb teen NOT TO GO IN THE CABIN transcends race, politics, and gender. Or how horror can help us embrace the inherently supernatural elements of faith. Or how it does the important job of reminding us that evil exists in the world, and can take on any number of forms.

But the argument that truly separates the wheat from the tares is that great horror, going all the way back to its roots in gothic literature, offers some of the best social commentary there is. Truly iconic horror films (and horror stories, for that matter) allow us to go below the surface of your basic spine-chiller, and think about everything from racism to gender politics to the afterlife.

Horror is at its best when it gives you something to think about along with your creeps. The new film It Follows, out this weekend, fits that bill quite well. It also happens to be one of the scariest movies this year.

The plot feels like classic urban legend. Teenager Jay (Maika Monroe) is dating the slightly older Hugh (Jake Weary), and decides one night to go all the way with him. Once it’s over, however, Hugh informs Jay that he’s cursed by a demon, a demon he’s now passed on to her. The demon will follow Jay, slowly and consistently, until it catches up with her and kills her, unless she first passes it on to someone else through sexual contact. If the demon kills her, it will then return to stalk and kill Hugh. Only Jay can see the demon, and it can look like anyone, be it a stranger, friend, or beloved family member.

This premise could easily be turned into something silly and gratuitous, and were it a studio venture instead of a smaller independent film, It Follows might have been just that. But although writer-director David Robert Mitchell has made a movie in which sex plays a pivotal role, he’s more interested in the consequences of it than the act itself. It Follows is packed with symbolism that represents loss of innocence, the onset of adulthood, and reminders of mortality — the ever-approaching darkness that none of us escape. Grim, yes, but also pretty impressive in a genre more commonly associated with objectification and cheap thrills.

'Dig’ TV Series Starts Adding Up: Watch the Numbers

Scene from the “Dig” pilot. Image via RNS/USA Network/Ronen Akerman.

Scene from the “Dig” pilot. Image via RNS/USA Network/Ronen Akerman.

"Dig," the new action-thriller series from the USA Network, is starting to add up — at least in terms of its religious content.

The third episode, broadcast March 19, advanced plot lines involving an apocalyptic sect of Jews, a desert-dwelling Christian cult, a stolen Torah breastplate rumored to be a telephone to God and a really cute baby cow named "Red" who is having a less-than-excellent adventure.

Tossed like a ball of spices into that potboiler of a story is a difficult biblical text, a secretive society dedicated to restoring the Jewish temple on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount and what may be a nod to Jewish numerology.

"It’s all about XIX," or the number 19, FBI agent Peter Connelly (Jason Isaacs) reads in a journal swiped from a murdered archaeologist.

Here — with spoiler alerts — is what’s behind the newly introduced religious elements to the "Dig" storyline.


Ever notice how in the Bible there are always 12 of this (Tribes of Israel, disciples) and 40 of that (days of rain, years in the desert)? It’s never eight or 11 or — heaven forbid — 17?

That’s because ancient cultures, especially biblical-era Jews, practiced numerology — the belief that numbers have specific religious or spiritual significance. There is a whole branch of study in Judaism called "gematria" by which letters of the Hebrew alphabet are given numerical values and scholars add them up in a search for meaning. The creators of "Dig" seem to be aware of this and are having some fun.

Twice in episode three, the number of Peter Connelly’s hotel room — seven — is pointedly shown. In numerology, seven is considered a perfect number, a "divine" number, the number of God. It represents holiness and sanctification — two themes that pop up over and over again in the search for the "pure" red heifer and the apparent need to keep the boy Joshua’s feet "unsoiled."

And when Peter has a bad dream, his bedside clock reads 11 p.m. In the Bible, 11 represents chaos, disorder, even impurity.

Then there’s that pesky number 19, which is behind much of the episode’s action. In biblical numerology, one is considered the number of God and nine is the number of his judgment. That sounds ominous enough for a thriller-conspiracy-action series like "Dig."

New & Noteworthy

Carolina Chocolate Drops front woman Rhiannon Giddens’ new album Tomorrow Is My Turn is sometimes folk, sometimes gospel, and occasionally haunting. But whether Giddens is singing of the beauty of black skin, the presence of God, or the love of a partner, she sounds like pure talent and soaring power. Nonesuch
In settings from Abu Ghraib prison to a Quaker meeting to memory, where his father says “My son, you are Arab, be proud of it,” Philip Metres’ newest poetry collection, Sand Opera, expresses elegant sorrow and rage at torture, war, the military-industrial complex, and bigotry. Alice James Books
Tricked, Jane Wells and John-Keith Wasson’s 2013 documentary about the U.S. sex industry is now available on DVD. It shows us exploitive pimps, the cops who battle them, impenitent johns, and prostituted women and girls who are younger, more vulnerable, and more abused than we might imagine. First Run Features
In Tailings: A Memoir, Kaethe Schwehn skillfully describes life in intentional Christian community by narrating her year at Holden Village, a remote Lutheran retreat center. This is a sincere, at times irreverent, chronicle of one woman’s time in between places, careers, relationships, and faith ideologies. Cascade Books

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First World Problems...

Illustration by Ken Davis

WHEN YOU WORK for a Christian justice organization, it’s hard to complain about your petty personal problems. Dishwasher leaving spots on the glassware at home? Don’t mention it in the office or you get called out for a “First World problem.” Not happy with your cable company? “Dude, First World problem!” retorts a colleague, pouring coffee into his Amnesty International mug before a meeting on income inequality.

I work with people who have traveled the world working for peace and freedom, who have spent time in jail for their beliefs, but who show no sympathy when L.L. Bean messes up my order. (I purchased the medium winter pullover from their activewear collection, but they sent me a small. And it pinches when I lift my arms to pray during chapel.)

In short, my peers are saints working for a better world. And fortunately for them, they don’t have to look outside the office to see what’s wrong with that world, for I walk among them. I am he (or maybe him), the self-centered manchild whose personal preoccupations give a counterbalance to the righteous intentions of my colleagues. It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it.

And that somebody needs new kitchen cabinets.

In my defense—I hurriedly explain to officemates rushing to their next strategy meeting on climate change, this time carrying coffee mugs from Greenpeace—our old cabinets are SO last century. In fact, they were made in the same century as the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, a minor monarch whose death prompted the conflagration of World War I. But back to my cabinets.

See how I did that? I shifted from one of the darkest periods of the 20th century to trivial thoughts about new stuff in my house. And from new cabinets to thoughts of kitchen paint schemes is but a short step down the sordid trail to shameless self-indulgence. But such is the thrall of the First World and its petty charms that one can hardly escape.

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Shooting in a Moral Vacuum

CLINT EASTWOOD has made films about the sorrow and repeating pointlessness of war, as seen through the eyes of both aggressor and aggressed-against, with empathic performances and unbearably moving impact. His American Sniper, about the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history, bloodied in Iraq and struggling at home, is not one of those films. At best it’s a valuable character study of a confused warrior, revealing the traumatic effect of his service. At worst it’s a jingoistic and xenophobic attempt to put varnish on a terrible national response to the horror of 9/11, a response that became a self-inflicted wound creating untold collateral damage.

A decade ago, Eastwood made Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, which saw World War II soldiers as propaganda fodder and had the moral imagination to show both sides as courageous and broken without denying the difference between attacker and defender. These films are respectful and thoughtful, but American Sniper is arguably a work born in vengeance. Its reception (becoming one of the biggest January box office weekends ever, and a quick right-wing favorite) is part of the failure to deal in an integrated way with the wounds of 9/11, or to even begin to face the reality of the war in Iraq: an imperial conquest using the cover of national trauma as a justification.

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All Eyes Are Upon Us

Mother, mother
There’s too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There’s far too many of you dying
                           —Marvin Gaye

then they stomped
          John Willet
as he lay on the sidewalk
hands cuffed behind his back
and shot
                      Michael Brown

who was on his way this fall to college

Stop and frisk
Stop and frisk

and used a chokehold to kill

                    Eric Garner

who sold cigarettes one-by-one
on the street in Staten Island
and punched again, again
in the face

                Marlene Pinnock

as she lay on the ground
then they stood around while
an angry bartender
pushed vet

                William Sager

down the stairs to his death;
maybe helped hide
the security videotape
then it was

               Dillon Taylor

in Salt Lake City, and

              James Boyd

in Albuquerque

and       Darrien Hunt

in Saratoga Springs, Utah—
how about that grandmother

             Kathryn Johnston

shot to death in a SWAT team raid
gone bad?

in ’73 in Dallas

             Santos Rodríguez

was marked by officer Cain
who played Russian Roulette
with the handcuffed 12-year-old
in his cruiser—
till the .357 fired; Santos’ blood
all over his 13-year-old handcuffed
brother David

and those cries of
19-month-old      Bounkham Phonesavanh
in whose crib
the flash-bang grenade exploded

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Conquering A Great Divide

WE LIVE IN an age of deep fragmentation. Like the ancient Gnostics, who believed in a deep divide between mind and body, we too are inclined to elevate the mind, or the spirit, over the body. The critic Harold Bloom once suggested that the religious practice of most Americans is “closer to ancient Gnostics than to early Christians.”

Ragan Sutterfield’s new memoir, This is My Body: From Obesity to Ironman, My Journey into the True Meaning of Flesh, Spirit, and Deeper Faith, recounts the story of his own struggles amid the fragmentation of our times. Having wrestled with being overweight since his childhood, Sutterfield eventually finds himself with a failing marriage and at his heaviest weight. He is faced with the incongruity that he is an environmentalist and farmer, doing grueling work to care for the land and creation, and yet taking poor care of his own body.

This is My Body is a compelling story of conversion, not unlike St. Augustine’s Confessions, as Sutterfield finds himself drawn out of the typical U.S. sort of Christianity that has little regard for the body and into a deeper faith in Christ, in which spirit and body are deeply interwoven. After the collapse of his first marriage, Sutterfield surrenders himself to the disciplines needed to care better for his body, specifically controlling his diet and becoming serious about exercise. From this conversion point onward, Sutterfield begins to learn and experience an incarnational faith in which our bodies cannot be taken for granted. He writes:

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A Rooted Gospel

NOEL CASTELLANOS is the CEO of the Christian Community Development Association, a network of Christians committed to seeing people and communities restored spiritually, economically, physically, and mentally. In order to nurture that holistic work, committed CCDA practitioners move into under-resourced neighborhoods and try to foster community. Castellanos’ experience with CCDA and a lifetime of missional community has informed his new book, Where the Cross Meets the Street: What Happens to the Neighborhood When God Is at the Center (IVP Books), a powerful testament to the necessity of externally focused ministry. He was interviewed via email by Dave Baker, who is responsible for school accounts and diversity initiatives at Baker Book House.

Dave Baker: You write that in terms of diversity, the evangelical community is far behind the rest of society. In what ways?

Noel Castellanos: Most evangelical denominations and organizations are not very ethnically or culturally diverse in leadership. With the amazing demographic changes that are happening in our country, how can we possibly be in a position to effectively reach and disciple people of color if the leadership on boards and in executive positions is all white?

What is your biggest challenge as CEO of CCDA? CCDA is a broad and diverse family held together by a core commitment to be a witness of the kingdom in the most vulnerable neighborhoods. My biggest challenge is to create an environment where everybody feels valued and respected in spite of our racial, theological, and denominational differences. Our call is to love one another across racial and class lines and to demonstrate that God’s people can be at the forefront of loving the poor.

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