Culture

Wisdom and Discontent

WHILE NOT HERE in person for the celebration of his 100 birthday on Jan. 31, Thomas Merton is certainly present in spirit through the extraordinary number of volumes about and even by him being issued to mark the anniversary—a splendid opportunity for readers to acquaint or reacquaint themselves with the monk often considered the most significant American Catholic writer of the past century.

Perhaps the best place to start is Messengers of Hope: Reflections in Honor of Thomas Merton, edited by Gray Henry and Jonathan Montaldo (Fons Vitae), a collection of more than 100 reflections by monks and activists, scholars, filmmakers, and poets, and Christian, Jewish, and Buddhist practitioners on the significance of Merton for their own lives. Some of the contributors are well known—Joan Chittister, John Dear, Jim Forest, James Martin, Richard Rohr, Huston Smith; others are well known in Merton circles; some are younger voices who one day may become well known but already have valuable insights as to how Merton continues to speak to the needs and hopes of the contemporary world. This is a rich compendium of personal stories that is a delight to dip into or to read straight through.

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Will Angelina Jolie’s ‘Unbroken’ Disappoint Christians? It Depends

Angelina Jolie with Louis Zamperini. Photo courtesy of Universal / RNS.

Angelina Jolie with Louis Zamperini. Photo courtesy of Universal / RNS.

Angelina Jolie’s highly anticipated film “Unbroken” features the true story of an Olympian and World War II veteran who was only able to extend forgiveness to his captors after he encountered Christianity.

The problem? The Christianity that is central to Louis Zamperini’s life is almost entirely absent from the film.

That could prove a disappointment to Christian viewers who read the best-seller by Lauren Hillenbrand that spawned the film, or who have been courted by the filmmakers to see the film, which opens in theaters on Christmas Day.

The question is whether Hollywood can lure faith-based audiences with a story that’s based on faith but doesn’t pay much attention to it, especially against the blockbuster biblical epic “Exodus,” which opens on Dec. 12.

SONG: 'Don’t Shoot!' – A Lament

St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch stood at the podium three nights before Thanksgiving and announced the St. Louis grand jury would not indict police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Moments after the announcement, Ferguson exploded in protests, then rage, then flames. Spontaneous protests also broke out in cities and towns across the country and carried on through the Thanksgiving holiday.

The morning after the announcement I received an email from friend and colleague David Bailey, who shared this song, “Don’t Shoot.” It was written and performed by students at Berklee College of Music, who go by the name Fleeceboi. They were so grieved by the announcement that they stayed up all night writing the song. I listened and wept.

‘The Red Tent:' A Bloody Tale with a Timely Twist

A scene from the new Lifetime series “The Red Tent.” Photo via Joey L. / Lifetim

A scene from the new Lifetime series “The Red Tent.” Photo via Joey L. / Lifetime / RNS.

In the beginning, there was “Noah.”

Coming up, there’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” an update of Cecil B. DeMille’s classic for this generation.

And that’s not all. On Dec. 7, Lifetime’s miniseries “The Red Tent” premieres.

God is smiling on Hollywood.

The adaptation of Anita Diamant’s blockbuster novel (and perennial reading group favorite) is an expansion and interpretation of the story of Dinah from the book of Genesis.

I have not seen “The Red Tent,” though I have read Diamant’s book. But its airing could not be more timely — the same week as Jewish congregations are reading the story of Dinah from the Torah.

There is something else that makes “The Red Tent” timely — tragically timely, in fact.

Noel Paul Stookey and Peter Yarrow: 50 Years of Song in 'Love of Community'

Photo by Sylvia Plachy via Peter, Paul and Mary Facebook page

The folk trio Peter, Paul, and Mary had almost 50 years together until Mary Travers’ death in 2009. Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey continue as musicians and activists, and have reflected on their experiences in a new a photo-filled book Peter, Paul and Mary: 50 Years in Life and Song (Imagine/Charlesbridge). A just-released album, DISCOVERED: Live in Concert, includes 12 live songs never before heard on their albums. And on Dec. 1 (check local listings), PBS will air 50 Years with Peter, Paul and Mary — a new documentary with rare and previously unseen television footage and many of the trio’s best performances and most popular songs.

I spoke with Yarrow and Stookey this week about music, movements, and the spiritual aspects of both. (Stookey had what he describes as a “deep reborn experience” as a Christian around 1969 or 1970; Yarrow doesn’t affiliate with a specific religious institution, but describes much of what motivates him in spiritual terms.)

Stookey describes how all three of them were drawn to carrying on the precedent of folk forebears such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger to make music “in the interest of, and love of, community.” Their appearance at the 1963 March on Washington was, he says, “the galvanizing moment” for their activism, the beginning of a trajectory that would engage them in the civil rights, peace, anti-nuclear, environment, and immigration movements, and “less media-covered causes and events — a rainbow of concerns that we were inevitably and naturally drawn into.”

Jon Stewart's 'Rosewater' a Needed Depiction of Torture

 Image via Rosewater Facebook page.

Jon Stewart, first-time screenwriter and director. Image via Rosewater Facebook page.

When Jon Stewart took a hiatus from The Daily Show a little over a year ago to film Rosewater, I’ll admit, I, along with other loyal viewers, was intrigued but skeptical. I was already aware of the story of Maziar Bahari, an Iranian-born journalist for Newsweek who’d been imprisoned and tortured by Iranian officials for nearly four months, detained in part because he’d sat for an interview with The Daily Show’s Jason Jones. But the rumors circulating that the film (based on Bahari’s memoir) would be partly comedic seemed … risky. Far be it from me to question Stewart’s satirical prowess, but films about political prisoners rarely leave room for laughter.

But of course, nobody needed to worry. Stewart’s penchant for pointing out the absurd is what makes Rosewater unique among films of its kind. Where movies like Hunger focus on the brutality of imprisonment (and rightly so), Rosewater’s goal is different. It sets out to explore the personality of people like Bahari’s jailers, the Kafkaesque nature of life in Iran under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the creativity it takes to survive in such a setting.

In the film, Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) leaves London, and his pregnant wife, to cover Iran’s controversial 2009 presidential election. He meets and interviews Iranians working for Ahmadinejad’s campaign, as well as those subverting the system and working for change — one scene has Bahari led up to an apartment roof covered with contraband satellite dishes. When there are accusations of fraud after the elections, followed by widespread protests, Bahari is arrested as a foreign spy. He’s held in solitary confinement, and interrogated and tortured by a man known only as Rosewater (so named for the smell of his perfume).

While there are scenes of physical torture onscreen, the film doesn’t show them in graphic detail — to the point where it almost feels that Stewart isn’t going as deep with the subject matter as he could have. But it does something instead that feels far more important.

'The Theory of Everything,' Life's Greatest Questions, and Missed Opportunities

Via The Theory of Everything on Facebook

The new Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything, presents the relationship between the famed physicist and his first wife, Jane, in beautiful display. Screenwriter Anthony McCarten described the underlying theme of the film such:

“If all of us were some kind of cosmic accident, what chance love? That’s the point at which science breaks down, and something else exists.”

That rift between the proofs and facts that drive Hawking (played by Eddie Redmayne) and the “something else” represented by the inspiring story at its center is one that reflects a larger conversation about faith, science, and the unknown that feels like it’s been a part of culture from the beginning of time (all puns aside). It’s unfortunate, then, that the film doesn’t take the opportunity to explore those discussions beyond the surface level.

VIDEO: Parker Millsap Performance

Parker Millsap is a talented newcomer to the Americana music scene with a Pentecostal background, a grizzly, soulful voice, and the ability to develop complex characters in four-minute songs. He’s just 21-years-old, “and yet he’s pulling this song from some secret, battered place inside him that’s far older than his years, and matching it with a sensual intensity that sizzles in the audience.”

His songs about a trucker evangelist (“Truck Stop Gospel”), a gay preacher’s kid (“Heaven Sent”), and meth cookers (“Quite Contrary”), brought New York’s Town Hall audience members to their feet. Read more in Jason Howard’s “You Gotta Move” (Sojourners, December 2014).

Watch this KEXP video to see Millsap perform four songs and talk about Pentecostalism, folk music, Pawn Stars, and his 21st birthday.

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Disarming Our Speech

POLICE BRUTALITY, the Affordable Care Act, climate change: When people with differing convictions on issues such as these come together for conversation, some prefer to first set aside the issues and focus on building relationships, while others want disagreements front and center. In his book I Beg to Differ: Navigating Difficult Conversations With Truth and Love, Biola University communications professor Tim Muehlhoff says relationship and honesty are necessary for progress to be made.

“If every conversation we have with others is about the issues that divide us, the intensity will hurt the communication climate,” he writes.

For example, he offers the hypothetical story of an evangelical Christian who wants to share his faith with a Muslim co-worker. Over lunch, the colleagues take time to learn about each other’s differing religious convictions, but the conversation doesn’t invade their work relationship. Back at the office, they return to their easygoing, day-to-day relational habits.

It’s a mistake to begin conversations by trying to convince others of our position, Muehlhoff says. It is better to listen with a sincere desire to understand what the other person believes and why they believe it.

“Position-centered individuals view others as a collective whole based on gender, race, education level, social position, political affiliation, religion, and so on. Individuals are grouped into large, often stereotypical categories and are treated accordingly,” Muehlhoff writes.

Person-centered communication views those with whom we disagree as “unrepeatable souls created by God.”

As we approach differences, he advises that we ask ourselves: “Are we relating to a person or someone’s analysis of them? Do we allow individuals the freedom of self-definition? Have we boxed people in according to stereotype? How much of my communication is shaped by pre-judgment?”

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Incubating Peaceful Revolution

IN NOVEMBER 1964, as the long Cold War heated up again, this time in Vietnam, Trappist monk Thomas Merton set forth a koan to 14 peacemakers: “By what right do Christians protest?” For three days, these activists and theologians—famously uniting Catholic and Protestant faith traditions—met with Merton in the Kentucky hills, grappling with how and why Christians should resist the violence of war.

Historian Gordon Oyer has re-created this meeting so pivotal to the peace movement and—most important—assessed its meaning for our time. The historic retreat is meticulously sourced with detailed textual analysis of the presenters at the retreat and the writers who influenced them. Particularly impressive is the lucid summary of the era and the delicacy and respect with which the author treats cultural and doctrinal differences among the participants.

Ecumenism in peace work is thankfully common today, but in the early ’60s the blending of faith traditions at the retreat was groundbreaking. Even more revolutionary were the two Masses the group celebrated together, with Jesuit priest Dan Berrigan presiding, everyone in the group receiving communion, and John Howard Yoder, a Mennonite theologian, preaching at the second liturgy. (Both practices were proscribed at the time.)

Attendees included Phil Berrigan, later one of the creators of the Plowshares actions for nuclear disarmament, and A.J. Muste, dean of the U.S. peace movement at the time, with years of experience in War Resisters League, the Committee for Nonviolent Action, and the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). FOR’s Paul Peachey and John Heidbrink were instrumental in initiating and organizing the retreat, although neither of them could attend in the end. (Neither could two other invitees—Bayard Rustin and Martin Luther King Jr.)

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