Saints and Nomads

MARILYNNE ROBINSON’S Lila is the love story we thought we already knew, but  didn’t. Lila takes us back to Gilead, Iowa, the same setting as Robinson’s novels Gilead and Home, describing the backstory and courtship of old Rev. Ames and the much younger Lila from a completely new point of view.

In Gilead, Ames describes his immediate, unlikely love for Lila, the hard-working wanderer. But Ames’ description of the feeling of love is more vivid than his description of the woman he loves.

The reverse is true in Lila. We learn Lila’s story through thick third-person prose. Robinson’s narration often reflects Lila’s stream of consciousness—a scattered, questioning pattern of thought, apt for a woman digesting the idea of small-town permanency after an exciting, scary, shame-filled life on the road. In the novel’s opening scene, Lila is just a small child, neglected and dying on the front steps of her house. Doll, a loving and hardened itinerant, kidnaps her just in time. It’s unclear if Doll stole or saved Lila. We can’t ever be sure. Either way, her love for Lila is fierce, and Lila comes to depend on it as they travel around the country, living off of door-to-door labor and inside jokes.

Doll is out of the picture by the time Lila arrives in Gilead, but her memory and influence remain in the forefront of Lila’s mind, in the form of mantras and rules for living: Can’t trust nobody. Don’t stay nowhere too long. Churches just want your money. Might as well take pleasure where you can. These are the commandments and proverbs that provide a semblance of structure and guidance for this unchurched nomad.

Suddenly Lila is no longer just the stoic godsend we met in Gilead. She is a loyal gardener, skilled drifter, lousy prostitute, and, eventually, ambivalent wife.

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Fueled By Faith, Not Fear

THE LAST THING that Ben Lowe could be accused of is “slacktivism,” which, as he describes in his latest book, Doing Good Without Giving Up, happens when we complain and point fingers about justice issues while being slow to take constructive action to address the situation.

From running for Congress at age 25 to helping to ignite a grassroots student environmental movement, Lowe’s track record for tackling complex and thorny problems where others would throw up their hands is remarkable. Even more remarkable is that after nearly a decade of such work, Lowe retains a gracious hope and steadfast sense of calling, despite being told by other Christians that he was being deceived by the devil, weathering bouts of burnout and depression, and continually facing entrenched systemic problems. This is why I trust him when he writes to encourage those of us whose hearts are heavy for the injustices in the world but often find ourselves stuck in the initial “slacktivist” inertia or dragged down later by opposition, burnout, and cynicism.

In Doing Good, Lowe outlines a sustainable impetus for social action and offers practices to sustain ongoing activism. We cannot be motivated by the desire to see dramatic change, he says, because this only “points people to ourselves and idolizes the change we seek.” It also ultimately lacks staying power. Instead, Lowe calls us to pursue faithfulness in our social action, which “points people to Christ ... and is ultimately the best—if not only—way to bring about the change God seeks.” Staying faithful, which the second half of the book covers, requires a continual reorientation to Christ as center through such practices as repentance, Sabbath, contemplation, and community.

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New Hopes and Old Realities in the Catholic Church

LEONARDO BOFF’S Francis of Rome and Francis of Assisi: A New Springtime for the Church offers intriguing portraits of the current bishop of Rome and the saint that is his namesake. The book provides an introduction to these two extraordinary figures and includes a brief overview of the papacy, tracing how the office of the bishop of Rome eventually became the infallible pope.

 The Roman Catholic Church depicted through Boff’s eyes is a church in crisis, reeling from the Vatican Bank and clergy sex abuse scandals. The institution and leadership have lost credibility in the eyes of many and the Roman curia is in need of reform. Yet this crisis is tempered by the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as pope, which for Boff fuels a tangible optimism for the church’s future.

Both men in these pages are called to the work of reform. Francis of Assisi’s conversion began when he heard a crucifix in a small church say, “Francis, go and restore my house, because it is in ruins.” Boff depicts Pope Francis as receiving a similar call, to reform the church so that it becomes a church that is poor, emphasizing humility and charity. Boff raises both men as models of living with the poor and like the poor, citing the now famous example of Francis going to pay his hotel bill after being elected pope.

Boff heavily contrasts Pope Francis to John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and is especially critical of the latter’s judgment on ecclesial issues. Boff presents Francis as a voice from the periphery. He is. And yet we must remember that Pope Francis was a cardinal of Italian descent from Argentina, a nation that often identifies itself more as European than American.

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Were You There?

THE GRAINY, STUTTERING surveillance footage shows police milling about, offering no medical assistance to the 12-year-old boy, Tamir Rice, one of them has just shot. They only spring into action when the boy’s older sister runs into the frame toward her brother. An officer tackles the girl, knocking her back in the snow, then cuffs her and puts her in the patrol car, only a few feet from her dead or dying brother.

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For the Love of ‘Paddington:’ A Movie Review

'Paddington' film still. Via Paddington Movie on Facebook

'Paddington' film still. Via Paddington Movie on Facebook

I loved Paddington, the new movie based on the Michael Bonds books about an immigrant bear who arrives in London from darkest Peru. Paddington has no resources other than his faith that he will be welcomed with open arms. Sadly, his experience begins like that of most undocumented immigrants to the European or American shores – he is rejected and ignored. But this is a playful movie with a happy ending that celebrates what wonderful things happen to the Brown family when they allow Paddington into their hearts and home.

Admittedly, Paddington is a handful – a wild animal unfamiliar with modern conveniences, whose commitment to being polite does not prevent unfortunate accidents that fulfill the nervous Mr. Brown’s worst fears. As the family learns to love this accident-prone bear, however, their love for each other is renewed. The villain (yes, of course, there’s a villain!) is defeated, Paddington finds a home, and the Brown’s problems are cured by loving the alien in their midst.

Does this fictional account of immigration with a happy ending have any bearing (pun intended!) on our real world immigration crisis? This movie invites us to wonder whether our fears of the changes that immigration brings are unfounded. After all, many European and American citizens fear the waves of legal and illegal immigration in Europe and the United States. We know all too well that these uninvited guests are radically changing racial, religious, and cultural demographics. Immigrants disrupt labor patterns, burden welfare systems, and tax the criminal justice system. And unlike the movie’s cartoon explosions, floods, and fires, the violence in our world that seems fomented in and among immigrant communities is all too real a threat.

Or so the story goes that stokes our fears. But is the story true?

‘American Sniper’ or ‘Selma’ — How Christian Is Your Movie Choice?

Images via 'American Sniper' and 'Selma Movie' on Facebook.

It’s no surprise when we talk about the influential power of the Christian pocketbook when it comes to politics, culture, or any other part of the social fabric in the United States. The conversation has been evolving for quite a while now, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have its standout moments. One such moment was the unexpected box office power of The Passion of the Christ. Large numbers from various faith communities urged their members to buy tickets in an effort to send a message with their purchase. They wanted the box office numbers to speak for Christian influence in the notably secular realm that was, and is, Hollywood. They wanted their money to talk.

I don’t see it as much of a coincidence that, according to The Hollywood Reporter, American Sniper finished its four-day debut on Monday — Martin Luther King Jr. Day — with a historic $107.3 million take. The previous best for a non-Hollywood-tentpole drama? The Passion of the Christ with $83.8 million.

Now, these two openings aren’t directly comparable. There are obviously different sets of circumstances surrounding the two films, including star-actor power, Hollywood support, and (for the purpose of our discussion) how much Christianized effort was involved. The buzz around American Sniper isn’t the same as when people purchased tickets to show support for The Passion of the Christ, even if they didn’t plan on seeing the film. Still, American Sniper brings us face to face with the issue Americans can’t escape in our modern society: the conflation of faith and patriotism.

A week ago, Sojourners ran an article from Religion News Service highlighting the role of Christian faith for Chris Kyle, the sniper and main character played by Bradley Cooper in the Clint Eastwood film. Several quotes from his book were used to call attention to the prominence of faith for Kyle in real life versus the lighter take on it shown in the movie. The article ends with one such quote:

“I believe the fact that I’ve accepted Jesus as my savior will be my salvation. … But in that backroom or whatever it is when God confronts me with my sins, I do not believe any of the kills I had during the war will be among them. Everyone I shot was evil. I had good cause on every shot. They all deserved to die.”

Even if such language is patriotic for those who defend a black-and-white, us-versus-them ideology when it comes to combat, it is disturbing at best in a Christian context.

Here’s the Faith in the ‘American Sniper’ You Won’t See in the Film

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures / RNS

Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle in 'American Sniper.' Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures / RNS

Chris Kyle, often described as the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history, wrote in his autobiography that he prioritized his life in the following order: God, country, family.

But God doesn’t make a central appearance in the film American Sniper, which opens nationwide on Jan. 16. The film offers a few similarities to Unbroken, Angelina Jolie’s recent World War II epic about POW Louis Zamperini.

Both stories focus on the dramatic stories of warriors who died before the movie versions of their lives came out. Both American Sniper and Unbroken include an early scene of their families sitting in church. Both men struggle with substance abuse after returning from war.

And both films largely skirt the faith that Kyle and Zamperini said were key to their identity — and their survival.

As a Navy SEAL, Kyle reportedly recorded 160 kill shots during his four tours in Iraq. His story drew national attention after the release of his 2012 autobiography American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, which enjoyed a 37-week run on The New York Times’ best-seller list.

The Clint Eastwood-directed biopic starring Bradley Cooper debuted with a limited release on Christmas Day, the same day Unbroken opened nationwide.

Kyle opened his book by probing the ethics of combat as he wrote about his first sniper shot, when he had to kill an Iraqi woman holding a grenade.

Top 5 Resources for Community Dialogue on 'Selma'

Via Selma movie on Facebook

Via Selma movie on Facebook

Just as Selma opened in wide-release I began to receive requests for advice on how to lead churches and faith communities through discussions of the film. Years ago, I used to lead these kinds of dialogues in my capacity as the Greater Los Angeles director of racial reconciliation for a college-based parachurch ministry. Some of our most fruitful conversations came after we saw films like Selma or read a book together or had a common experience of racial injustice that we needed to process.

The film Selma is an incredibly helpful dialogue centerpiece at the moment. But like all things, other dialogue opportunities will rise and take center stage in the coming weeks and months. Other films will be released, helpful books will be published, and public events will provoke us to need to dialogue again. When those opportunities surface, I recommend using the format below as a template for similar dialogues moving forward. I’ve collected my Top 5 recommended resources to help guide your community dialogue on racial justice and Selma.

New and Noteworthy

Living God's Reign
In Witnessing: Prophecy, Politics, and Wisdom, edited by Maria Clara Bingemer and Peter Casarella, international scholars write on many aspects of Christian witness, including martyrdom (especially Catholic martyrs in El Salvador), personal narrative, the interlocking realities of God’s beauty and justice, and intercultural dialogue. Orbis

 Prophet at the Gates

Forward Together: A Moral Message for the Nation gathers the speeches of North Carolina NAACP president William J. Barber at the 2013 Moral Mondays protests and other progressive events in that state. Powerful God-rooted words, yearning for equality and justice for all. Chalice Press

Peace Adventures
Since nonviolently resisting a snowball barrage at age 7, Quaker David Hartsough (executive director of Peaceworkers and co-founder of the Nonviolent Peaceforce) has put peace into practice. His story, Waging Peace: Global Adventures of a Lifelong Activist, is both an optimistic memoir and a resource for activists. PM Press

 Lens of Creation 

The Salt of the Earth is a documentary following the cross-continental travels of photographer Sebastião Salgado over the past 40 years. The film is beautiful and jarring—a stunningly captured testament to the magnificence of creation and the waywardness of humankind. Directed by Wim Wenders with Salgado’s son, Juliano. Sony Classics

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Meet the New Boss (looks familiar)

Illustration by Ken Davis

IN MID-JANUARY, the gavel of power will change hands in the U.S. Senate. Mitch McConnell, in a touching act of cross-party reconciliation, will reach across the aisle and forcefully pry the symbol of legislative authority from the desperate grip of Harry Reid. Although the outgoing majority leader said after the midterms, “I have been able to strike a compromise with my Republican colleagues, and I’m ready to do it again,” Reid later clarified that what he meant was the compromise he would strike would be across the knuckles.

After warding off repeated blows, however, McConnell will be the new leader of the Senate, a massive change in political power that will go virtually unnoticed to the public, since he and Reid are both grim-faced, elderly white men whose rare smiles cause parents to cover their children’s eyes and bring their pets indoors.

Indistinguishable in their sour demeanors, they are like brothers separated at birth: two joyless Caucasian babies muttering in their hospital cribs, already soured by the knowledge their lives will be spent in fruitless conflict, the only bright spot being they’ll have comfortable leather seating at work.

Both men are well into their seventh decade, with most of their adulthood spent in politics, another reminder that the true power of incumbency is simply outliving everybody else.

You would think that the many benefits of longevity would include a lifetime of wisdom but, for these two men, sitting long at the feast of reason is no guarantee of peckishness. (Sorry. My router is down and I’ve been reading 19th-century English literature instead of streaming videos of cute animals. It’s the baby kangaroos I miss the most.)

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