Culture

A Better Kind of Good

TOOTSIE, the 1982 Dustin Hoffman comedy in which a failing actor cross-dresses to win a part on a soap opera, is a lovely, problematic film (and just released in an excellent home edition from www.criterion.com). It’s controversial in some quarters for playing the idea of a man dressing as a woman for laughs: The joke is on any male-bodied person who challenges macho stereotypes. As when The Da Vinci Code attracted criticism for portraying a character with albinism as an insane assassin, like almost every other comparable movie has treated albinism, Tootsie represents a time when the extent of mainstream cinema’s engagement with what it thought constituted “trans” was to portray cross-dressing for laughs. But a cisgender straight character dressing up has little or nothing to do with the real stories of the “T” in LGBTQ.

Cinematic LGBTQ characters seem to evolve one step forward and a half back—beginning with their invisibility, then moving through psychopathy (the “evil queer” of Hitchcock’s Rope still shows up in The Lion King and The Avengers); martyrdom (Kiss of the Spiderwoman, Philadelphia, Brokeback Mountain); safe best friends (The Prince of Tides and My Best Friend’s Wedding); and eventually redemption (Milk, the wonderful recent Pride). The evolution continues: George Carlin’s gay best friend caricature in The Prince of Tides was in good faith, but would not pass muster today. We’re shaking off the idea that LGBTQ characters can only be suffering or sassy.

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Anna

I.
The wailing and the murmured prayers,
the animal ruckus, and coin against coin,
smoke hanging in the temple spaces—
offerings that bear our love to the seat of heaven.

For sixty years my soul has leaned
so hard toward the Almighty, I’m open
like a flower drenched with light
that blossoms into words.

Yet I wonder, will I rest too soon
will I sleep like Miriam
with no honey from the Promised Land
to sweeten this old life?

II.
But now she enters with new-mother steps,
her strong gaze searching us
for hearts that see. I turn to tell all
who wait, who yearn for consolation,

look, she brings the Word most fully,
this young woman cradling the body
of Emmanuel against her heart
arms trembling with the weight.

Kristina LaCelle-Peterson is an associate professor of religion and part of the Center for Faith, Justice, and Global Engagement at Houghton College in New York.

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Staying Connected in Later Years

IN THE U.S., mention of “aging in community” might conjure up images of weathered faces in nursing homes and snowbirds in South Florida. And yet, as increasing numbers of Americans reach the golden years—and do so in an uncertain economy—so do the array of scenarios for those growing older. Award-winning journalist Beth Baker traveled across the U.S. to document the possibilities in her latest book, With a Little Help from Our Friends: Creating Community as We Grow Older.

Some of her findings aren’t so surprising. Baby boomers have a stronger desire for independence than did their predecessors, and they aren’t keen on being tagged “elderly.” In fact, they generally see themselves in a different cohort than those born just prior to the boom.

Whether you’re in one of the aforementioned age groups or a diligent millennial thinking way ahead, Baker shows that imagining how you’ll one day balance independence with human connection in your older years doesn’t have to be daunting.

“That we can raise this question is remarkable. Never before have older people, often through their own imagination and determination, had real options from which to choose,” she writes.

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Reviving the Flame

CORNEL WEST and Christa Buschendorf have collaborated to bring forth a powerful look at the visionary legacies of 19th- and 20th-century African-American leaders. Black Prophetic Fire consists of six conversations between West and Buschendorf, each one focusing on a different black prophetic figure: Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King Jr., Ella Baker, Malcolm X, and Ida B. Wells. In the book, West displays his wealth of knowledge and understanding of those prominent historical black icons and their movements.

For West, U.S. society has arrived at a pivotal point. He sees the “black embrace of the seductive myth of individualism in American culture” as reason enough to ask tough reflective questions such as, “Are we witnessing the death of black prophetic fire in our time?” and “Have we forgotten how beautiful it is to be on fire for justice?”

West is known as an intellectual and activist who loathes the unfair treatment of people anywhere, regardless of their race, gender, sexual orientation, or religious creed. His message of love, particularly for the younger generations, becomes the undertone of this book. Throughout the years, the black prophetic tradition has seen a decline in exemplars of integrity. West presents the conversations he had with Buschendorf as a history lesson and a call to younger generations to not let this tradition fizzle out.

The black prophetic tradition has improved the conditions of the black community in the U.S. It has also served as a moral compass for an American society that has failed to live up to the promises stated in its founding documents.

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New & Noteworthy

Truth and Satire
The witty film satire Dear White People is a comic entry point into a serious, much-needed conversation about race relations on college campuses. The storylines of four African-American students at a prestigious university spotlight a culture of racism that is easily and dangerously concealed by academia’s progressive posture. dearwhitepeoplemovie.com

Folk Extravaganza
The album Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating the Music of “Inside Llewyn Davis,” recorded at a 2013 concert, features Punch Brothers, Joan Baez, The Avett Brothers, Gillian Welch, and others. The 34 tracks include a whiskey anthem and a classic hymn, a Vietnam War protest song and a farewell lament. Nonesuch

Well Versed
In Disquiet Time: Rants and Reflections in the Good Book by the Skeptical, the Faithful, and a Few Scoundrels, edited by Jennifer Grant and Cathleen Falsani, more than 40 contributors offer personal essays on the Bible passages that challenge, confound, or delight them. Jericho Books

Making Food Fair
Those who feed America can’t always afford to feed their families, but they’re working to change that. The documentary Food Chains follows the lives of farm laborers, an invaluable and abused segment of our population, as they fight for fair wages by going straight to the top offenders: supermarkets. foodchainsfilm.com

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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.”

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