Culture

Rich Songs of Economic Despair

OUT WHERE Kentucky meets West Virginia, you’ll find one of America’s cultural seedbeds, where Scotch-Irish immigrant traditions took root in the New World. But on her debut album, American Middle Class, singer-songwriter Angaleena Presley, a daughter of the Kentucky mountains (and no kin to The King), paints a heartbreaking picture of what Appalachia has become.

The people of this region were once mostly self-sufficient subsistence farmers. In the early 20th century, they were drafted into the coal mines but brought their pride and independence with them, waging often-bloody battles to establish the United Mine Workers of America. For over a century now, the region’s economic fate has been hostage to the ups and downs of the energy market. As a result, the coal fields have become one of the poorest parts of the country.

The music that flourished in this region became, along with that of low-country African Americans, one of the two great pillars of American popular music. So many country music greats have come from here that Kentucky has a “Country Music Highway Museum” just to honor all the stars (Loretta Lynn, Ricky Skaggs, Billy Ray Cyrus, Keith Whitley, and many others) born along U.S. 23.

In short, this part of Appalachia is sort of the Mississippi Delta for white people: A place of dire economic poverty and vast cultural riches, where the art and spirit of a people has found its most intense expression.

Angaleena Presley seems to know all this. The woman from Beauty, Ky., with the perfect country music name is a pure product of hardcore Appalachia. A miner’s daughter, during high school she would cut class, drive to the old house that Loretta Lynn wrote about in Coal Miner’s Daughter, and try to write songs.

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This is Praying

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.

You can barely see his face
through the slot, eight inches
from the bottom of the door.
Pie-hole, they call it. You know

he cannot be cured of his crime.
But you can’t help yourself—
this language your body speaks
as you crouch, palms, knees

pressed against the prison floor.
He is nineteen, has an aunt, a mother,
both illiterate, both a hundred miles
away. No one knows why

they have stopped visiting.
You imagine his body, each Sunday,
learning again of their absence.
You imagine his organs, his bones

liquefying inside of his skin.
You imagine his eyes
staring out from his own
gathered flesh. It is three days

before Christmas and you have
ten minutes to spread something
like joy. You think of Vermeer,
the woman in blue, refusing
to obey the physics of light.
You do not even know
the source of your own voice.
Am I the bird? There is a window

beyond the canvas but Vermeer
thinks a shadow will be
distracting. You tell him—
the boy—about your dream.

How your mind had been
like a living thing nailed down,
trembling with what ifs
and how comes. And then

these words: I hear you,
I hear you breathing. A sound
coming from within and
beyond. Not a voice, exactly.

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Reclaiming the Prophetic Edge

“WE ARE AT the moment when our lives must be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly.”

Martin Luther King Jr. gave this stinging critique of the apathetic nature of both the U.S. church and the general public more than 40 years ago. While some things have changed for the better, the truth remains that the three evils of society that King named (racism, militarism, materialism) continue to pervade U.S. culture, crippling our moral and ethical foundation.

It is difficult to imagine that someone the FBI once labeled as “the most dangerous man in America” would one day have his own national holiday. Each year we celebrate the life of King with an incomplete and romanticized retelling of the impact he had on society during and after the civil rights movement. He dreamed of a better nation, but what was it about his dream that made him a nightmare to the U.S. government?

That is essentially the question that Cornel West attempts to answer with his latest book, The Radical King. This is the 10th book in the King Legacy series, a partnership between the estate of Martin Luther King Jr. and Beacon Press. West curated 23 selections, ranging from King’s Palm Sunday sermon on Mohandas K. Gandhi to his speech titled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” which he delivered exactly one year to the day before he was assassinated. West utilizes this wide array of King’s most important writings and orations to illustrate just how radical he was.

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Excerpt: Something Transcendent

Rosemarie Freeney Harding describes the reaction of her friend—Albany, Georgia-based civil rights leader Marion King—to a physical attack.

In the summer of 1962, in the middle of the Albany campaign, Marion and I were both pregnant. During the campaign, Marion often visited movement workers who were jailed in local facilities throughout Dougherty and Terrell counties—taking them food, checking on conditions where they were kept, relaying messages. On one occasion as she exited a jail, a policeman who felt she was not moving fast enough kicked her in the back so that she fell to the ground. Marion fell so hard that she lost the baby.

Some of us went to see her at her home when she was released from the hospital. As we waited our shock and pain mixed with anger. ... We naturally assumed she would share our sense of indignation and assault. But something else was happening. When Marion came into the room, walking slowly so as not to exacerbate her pain, there was something in her face. A kind of light. Like a victory, a resplendence. It’s hard to explain, because it wasn’t prideful and it wasn’t false. It helped to quiet us—our anger, our judgment. And we recognized it.

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What Matters Most?

EARLY IN Being Mortal, surgeon Atul Gawande tells the story of Joseph Lazaroff, a patient with incurable prostate cancer. His medical team pursued multiple treatments, including emergency radiation and surgery, but Lazaroff ultimately died. What most struck Gawande later was that he and the team avoided talking honestly about Lazaroff’s choices—even when they knew he couldn’t be cured.

“We could never bring ourselves to discuss the larger truth about his condition or the ultimate limits of our capabilities, let alone what might matter most to him as he neared the end of his life,” Gawande writes. “The chances that he could return to anything like the life he had even a few weeks earlier were zero. But admitting this and helping him cope with it seemed beyond us.”

Why is that? For one, Gawande’s medical training didn’t prepare him for dealing with frailty, aging, or dying, he writes. He and his peers were taught to “fix,” to heal people with expertise, tools, and tests. Like most doctors, he approached his patients’ challenges as medical problems to solve, whether they were the accumulations of old age or terminal illness.

But a decade into his practice, Gawande is arguing for a change. Being Mortal is a conversation about why and how. For all its triumphs, medicine doesn’t—and shouldn’t—hold all the answers when it comes to aging and death.

Gawande looks at aging and societal shifts over the last decades, particularly the development of nursing homes (hospitals needed a place to put elderly patients who had nowhere else to go) and their limitations—something he saw through the experience of his grandmother-in-law, Alice Hobson.

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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.

Numerology:

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

GOING IT ALONE
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
 
VERSES VS. DEATH
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
 
INSIDE U.S. TRAFFICKING
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
 
TRANSITION WITH MEANING
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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