Omar Sacirbey 09-13-2013
“The Muslims are Coming” tells the story of a group of comedians who take their

“The Muslims are Coming” tells the story of a group of comedians who take their show to the Bible Belt. Photo via show website.

Muslim stand-up comedy is nothing new. But what makes “The Muslims Are Coming” different is that it portrays what happens when a troupe of comedians performs before red state Americans in such places as Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Arizona, Utah and Idaho.

The documentary by Negin Farsad, an Iranian-American, and Dean Obeidallah, of Palestinian-Italian roots, opened in Chicago yesterday.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan says Mass in Madrid in 2011, Jeffrey Bruno / Shutterstock

Cardinal Timothy Dolan says Mass in Madrid in 2011, Jeffrey Bruno /

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the most famous funny man in the American hierarchy, went on The Colbert Report Tuesday night to trade quips with another funny guy — and another well-known Catholic — host Stephen Colbert.

Indeed, as Colbert — inhabiting his onscreen persona as a blowhard rightwing pundit — said in welcoming Dolan: “You’re the second most famous Catholic in America – after myself.”

But it was actually Dolan who got the first gag, and giggles, as he walked onto the set and ostentatiously bowed and kissed Colbert’s hand as if he were greeting the pope.

“I’ve got to get a nice big ring if you’re going to be kissing my hand!” replied Colbert, who seemed — uncharacteristically —  unsure of how to play the exchange.

In fact, while Colbert was in full faux bloviating mode, he seemed to let Dolan set the pace of their chat; Colbert didn’t poke too hard on topics that could have prompted controversy.

Part of the relative deference may stem from the fact that Colbert is a serious Catholic who has taught Sunday school at his New Jersey parish. Or perhaps it was because Colbert knows Dolan personally, having appeared — out of character — at a forum on faith and humor last year at Fordham University. Or maybe Colbert was a bit out of practice: This was his first show after a two-week summer break, part of which he spent in Rome.

Rachel Marie Stone 08-26-2013

My husband and I basically fell in love via AOL instant message conversations that led to daily email missives and then to phone calls and then, you know, to actually hanging out in person.

We knew each other in ‘real’ life but I was so afraid of saying something stupid in front of him that I basically ignored him, which, as it happens, is not a great way to indicate that you actually really like someone. But IM-ing made me bold.

So, in a way, You’ve Got Mail feels like one of “our” movies since it parallels our story just a little.

“Our” real movie is Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, which is a 1957 Swedish movie about a knight returning from the crusades during the Black Death who is engaged throughout the movie in a chess match with Death, so, yeah, basically the opposite of You’ve Got Mail.

We were both at a “movie night” at one of our professor’s homes. I’d known he was going to be there and wrote in my meticulous, OCD handwriting in my journal:

I’m so nervous because Tim Stone is going to be there and I don’t want to find him attractive.

Heaven forbid I find him attractive, right? I had clearly been a little too good at "Kissing Dating Goodbye" (thanks, Josh Harris!) In those days when someone asked me out for coffee I usually responded with horror, like they’d just ask me to help dispose of a body.

Jeffrey Weiss 08-21-2013
Steve Jobs The Economist cover, via Bill So /

Steve Jobs The Economist cover, via Bill So /

The new movie about Steve Jobs is short on anything explicitly religious. Like its main character, however, it’s got a thread of transcendence running through it.

The truth about Jobs and religion may be that, in this arena as in others, he was ahead of the cutting edge.

The film isn’t making the purists happy, in part because it takes too many liberties with history. But it’s not a documentary. I’ll go against many of the reviews and say that Ashton Kutcher does a pretty good job at representing the personality found in Jobs’ speeches and in what has been written about Jobs — particularly in the massive authorized biography by Walter Isaacson.

One quote in that book, from one of Jobs’ old girlfriends, pretty much captures the character in the film: “He was an enlightened being who was cruel,” she told Isaacson. “That’s a strange combination.”

Stacey Schwenker 08-21-2013

As people stepped on our toes and stood anxiously in front of us, waiting to exit the crowded theater, three of us sat weeping at the close of Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Even now, as I recall that moment, it brings tears to my eyes.

How do I describe the movie? Utterly intense. Remarkable. Heartbreaking. Inspiring. A genius capturing of the complexities of the Civil Rights Movement, of the history of race in America in the 20th and early 21st centuries, of presidential decision making, and of family.

I sat next to my colleague, Lisa Sharon Harper, who sobbed at the violence, tragedy, and passionate courage displayed on screen. It was a challenge. To be a white woman sitting next to an African-American woman as she wept over the suffering of her people — often at the hands of my people. It was neither her nor I who had perpetrated these specific acts, but we are certainly still caught in the tangled web of systemic racism and the histories that our ancestors have wrought us.

Even as we had waited in the theater prior to the movie's start, we spoke of serious subjects. She shared some of her lineage and the challenges of legal records that simply do not exist when ancestors are slaves or perhaps a Cherokee Indian who escaped the Trail of Tears in Kentucky and suddenly appears on the U.S. Census in 1850 as an adult. We spoke of her leadership in the church, and I encouraged her to continue speaking even though she is one of the lone women who graces the stages in front of national audiences. I told her, "You must do this so that other women who come after you can do this. You must do this for women right now. You must do this so that I can do this." We bonded over being women in ministry.

And then the separation came. I do not know Lisa's shoes — the road that she walks due to the color of her skin. I see her in all of her glory — passion, intelligence, creativity — and not in all of her blackness. Our world sees her with racial eyes.

Menachem Wecker 08-16-2013
Rageh Omaar retraces the footsteps of the prophet in PBS’ “Life of Muhammad.” Ph

Rageh Omaar retraces the footsteps of the prophet in PBS’ “Life of Muhammad.” Photo via RNS/PBS.

He’s born poor. By age 6, he’s an orphan. Two years later, he loses his grandfather. Yet he overcomes his circumstances, develops a reputation for business integrity and progressive views on marriage.

Then he becomes a prophet of God.

The portrait of the Muslim prophet, which emerges from a PBS documentary “Life of Muhammad,” may surprise some American viewers.

Terrence Howard and Oprah Winfrey in a scene from “Lee Daniels’ ‘The Butler.’” P

Terrence Howard and Oprah Winfrey in a scene from “Lee Daniels’ ‘The Butler.’” Photo via RNS.

Eugene Allen served eight presidents as a White House butler, and his legendary career is the inspiration for Lee Daniels’ The Butler, a film starring Oprah Winfrey, Jane Fonda, and a host of A-list Hollywood talent.

But members of The Greater First Baptist Church knew the man who died in 2010 by other titles: usher, trustee, and a humble man of quiet faith.

Cathleen Falsani 08-08-2013
Religion News Service file photo used with permission of the Merton Legacy Trust

Religion News Service file photo used with permission of the Merton Legacy Trust and the Merton Center at Bellarmine University

Don’t sing love songs, you’ll wake my mother
She’s sleeping here right by my side
And in her right hand a silver dagger,
She says that I can’t be your bride.
— from “Silver Dagger” by Joan Baez

It was their song — the young, winsome brunette and her silver-pated lover with the sparkly eyes.

“All the love and all the death in me are at the moment wound up in Joan Baez’s ‘Silver Dagger,’” the man wrote to his lady love in 1966. “I can’t get it out of my head, day or night. I am obsessed with it. My whole being is saturated with it. The song is myself — and yourself for me, in a way.”

He yearned for her. He was heartbroken. And he was Thomas Merton — the Trappist monk, celebrated author, and perhaps most influential American Catholic of the 20th century.

It’s a chapter of the thoroughly modern mystic’s life that is no secret to his legions of fans, detractors, and scholars of his prolific work, including the best-selling autobiography, The Seven-Storey Mountain.

Now Merton’s complex love life is the subject of a forthcoming feature film, The Divine Comedy of Thomas Merton.

Alison Kirkpatrick 07-29-2013
Production still via

Production still via

I tend to keep my heart under lock and key. I am not prone to Merton-esque revelations. My conscious mind is a far safer vantage point from which to view life’s experiences, so when a friend invited me to go see the newly released Fruitvale Station last night, I thought that was the perspective from which I would see it: my logical mind, my heart under wraps. It was about a subject with which I have no experience and only vaguely remembered from the papers a few years back. I thought it would be a perfect film for my head to be educated while my heart remained safe. I was wrong.

Fruitvale Station broke my heart open.

Suzanne Ross 07-25-2013
Big Lights Big City promotional poster

Big Lights Big City promotional poster

How’s this for an unlikely scenario? One of the characters in Keith Huff’s new crime comedy, Big Lake Big City, is a petty criminal named Stewart who ends up not quite dead after a screwdriver accidently gets embedded in his skull. If the doctors try to remove it, he will die; if they leave it in, he will die. But somehow he isn’t dead yet. For a few days he walks around in a liminal space between life and death, more like a walking corpse than anything else. The sign of his violent demise is there for all to see but he manages to hide it under a Shriner’s cap. A pretty funny sight gag because you have to ignore that fact that the hat is kinda floating off kilter slighter off his head in order not to know something is terribly wrong.

Big Lake Big City is having its world premiere at Lookingglass Theater in Chicago this summer. After seeing the show and interviewing the lead actor Phil Smith for Voices of Peace Talk Radio here at Raven, I couldn’t help but see parallels to another unlikely scenario: a crucified man is resurrected with the marks of his violent death on his body for all to see. I’m pretty sure that Keith Huff did not intend to write a Christian allegory, but the themes of life, death, and resurrection reverberate through the play. Oddly enough, I think Stewart’s story can function as a parable of sorts for understanding the radical shift in the human relationship to death and violence that was made possible by the resurrection. Stay with me, now!

Kevin Eckstrom 07-25-2013
Photo courtesy RNS/Grace Hill Media/Warner Bros.

Film poster of “The Conjuring.” Photo courtesy RNS/Grace Hill Media/Warner Bros.

The box office hit The Conjuring has all the requisite features of a standard horror flick: creaky doors, mysterious things that go bump in the night, creepy dolls and a dead witch who seizes the body of an unsuspecting mother.

It also has an unexpected background character for a horror film: God.

Filmmaker brothers Chad and Carey Hayes say their film isn’t your typical “Christian” movie fare, but it nonetheless carries a strong religious message that can appeal to faith-minded audiences.

Elaina Ramsey 07-08-2013

Live Simply by Franciscan Media / Who is Dayani Crystal? by Pulse Films / Eyes of the Heart: Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice by Christine Valers / Sober Mercies: How Love Caught Up with a Christian Drunk by Heather Kopp

Benedict Varnum 07-05-2013
Monsters University, photo via Disney / Pixar

Monsters University, photo via Disney / Pixar

This week an online ad informed me that Monsters University has finished first at the box office for two weeks running. I’m convicted by the statistic; I saw it somewhere between Northfield, Minn., and the Twin Cities on the “Largest Movie Screen in Minnesota” last week while visiting my brother. But it struck me that the movie presents – probably quite by accident – an opportunity to talk about a deep moral reality. So what follows will only begin obliquely by talking about cute monsters. And it will contain (mostly minor) spoilers. You’ve been warned.

Photo courtesy RNS/ Warner Bros. Pictures.

Henry Cavill as Superman in Warner Bros Pictures “Man of Steel." Photo courtesy RNS/Warner Bros. Pictures.

Superman has always had a bit of a messiah complex, born as a modern-day Moses in the imagination of two Jewish guys during the Depression and over the years developing and amplifying his Christlike characteristics.

So it made sense that Warner Bros. Pictures spared no effort in using the Jesus connection to attract the increasingly important Christian audience to see the latest film in the Superman franchise, Man of Steel.

The studio hired a leading faith-based marketing agency, Grace Hill Media, to hold special screenings for pastors, and it developed an extensive website of Christian-themed resources — including specially-edited trailers for use in churches and Man of Steel sermon notes.

James Johnson 06-24-2013
Rev. James Johnson, the Whiskey Priest, in Peru

Rev. James Johnson, the Whiskey Priest, in Peru

Go Here to read the second in this series, Competing for the Greater Good

Peru is a land of extremes, especially for a motorcycle pilgrimage. Our journey from Lima to the orphanage in Moquegua took us through some of the most severe riding conditions imaginable. Storms of Peru, the second segment in the Neale Bayly Rides series, provided a glimpse into the challenges we faced, as Peru would not give up her beauty easily.

Our ride began in the congested, chaotic streets of Lima — a thriving metropolis of 16 million people — where an aggressive riding posture is your only chance for survival. It’s not that the Peruvians are bad drivers; it’s just that traffic laws don’t seem to be a concern for any of them. Riding through the boiling cauldron of cars felt like a massive vehicular free-for-all. Lima provided a baptism by fire for our adventure and, exciting though it was, we were glad to leave the haphazard traffic behind us.  

We rode south toward the beautiful but haunting desert of Ica. The life-smothering heat and blowing sands sweep across the land and stop abruptly at the Pacific Ocean. Riding through the rugged terrain of crushed rock, sugar sand, and loose gravel was even more challenging than it appeared on television. I was glad the production team didn’t show everything. I bit the dust more times than I care to admit.

The country is amazingly beautiful, as are the people. There's a crazy juxtaposition of things you have to see to believe — poverty mixed with joy, beauty and brokenness in the very same face, a fierce gratitude in the meanest of circumstances.

Image still from 'Dirty Wars' documentary

Image still from 'Dirty Wars' documentary

Days before President Barack Obama's high-profile speech on drones and U.S. counterterrorism efforts, Sojourners sat down with investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill to take an inside look at U.S.-led covert wars and the drones that have become an integral part of our global “war on terror.”

His thesis?

"After years of traveling in these countries, I really believe that we’re creating more enemies than we’re killing.”

In some respects, drones are simply a new tool of old empire. Scahill, author of Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield and producer of the documentary of the same name, now in theaters, calls this an "unending war ... being legitimized under a popular Democratic president, who is a constitutional lawyer by trade.”

Indeed, within five years, the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq for terrorist attacks the country did not commit has transformed under the Obama administration into pre-emptive assassinations halfway around the world, for crimes citizens have not yet committed. The result, Scahill suggested, is our collective complicity to “unending war.”

James Johnson 06-18-2013
Rev. James Johnson, the Whiskey Priest

Rev. James Johnson, the Whiskey Priest

Despite the spiritual strengthening afforded by my monastic experience, this first episode of the show gave me a clearer picture of my inner, ongoing conflict. And this is what I see: in the midst of real life, when the motorcycle engines are lit and the race is on, I want to win. Regardless of what I read in the scripture about establishing your worth in God’s unique, creative expression and what I learned from my soul-nourishing experience with the monks, it pisses me off to lose.

Yes, there was an arduous journey ahead; and, yes there were people who needed attention. But in the moment, I want to prove myself. I’ve seen this so often in my life — when my connection with God grows cold, the endeavor becomes more about my performance and less about God’s presence.

We compete to determine our strengths and weaknesses, not to determine our value. I understand that. I think only a Jesus-grace experience can finally answer the value question. But in real life I’m not there yet. I still struggle with the intersection of my faith in Jesus and my fierce competitive nature. I make more out of winning (or losing) than my faith warrants.

In Latin, the word competition originally meant “to strive together or to come together toward a common goal.” In that sense, the team had come together in a spirit of true competition. Despite any egotistical desires, we grew stronger and engaged the mission as one — each of us better for the competition. And, though I don’t have it all worked out yet, I continue to trust The Great Storyteller — there is yet much grace for a fierce competitor and Whiskey Priest.

Katie Anderson 06-12-2013
Photo courtesy Zeke Piestrup via Facebook

Photo courtesy Zeke Piestrup via Facebook

For thousands of years, select groups of Christians have thought their generation was Earth’s last. Even the Apostle Paul thought Jesus would return in his lifetime. But Paul didn’t have the audacity to pinpoint an exact date for what we call the Rapture. Harold Camping, on the other hand, did.

Apocalypse Later: Harold Camping vs. The End of the World a new documentary that premiered June 8 — exposes wrongful and conflicting beliefs about Jesus’ return by sharing Camping’s concrete opinions of those who didn’t follow his beliefs of the apocalypse. Declaring their spot in hell, Camping was certain that those who didn’t follow his apocalyptic views would spend eternity in damnation.  

Apocalypse Later tells the story of Camping, a man who had to let go of his pride and face the reality of joining the dozens of others who have wrongly predicted the end of time.

In the documentary, historian and New Testament scholar Loren Stuckenbruck refers to the apocalypse as a “literary genre,” a “mode of thought,” and “a social movement.”

The film is emotional and shocking, contrasting the scary, more literal interpretations of fundamentalist Christians with the more nuanced hermeneutical approaches of academics like Struckenbruck. The juxtaposition reveals that the tensions and battles that Christians face might not be against those who will be “left behind,” but rather between Christians themselves.

Adam Ericksen 06-05-2013
Star Trek: Into Darkness movie still.

Star Trek: Into Darkness movie still.

Star Trek: Into Darkness is a fascinating and complicated story that is well worth watching. Instead of providing a summary, I want to explore three related aspects of the movie: sacrifice, blood, and hope for a more peaceful future.

Live Long and Prosper – The Sacrificial Formula

In a reference to my favorite Star Trek movie, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the current movie’s Spock (Zachary Quinto) restates the sacrificial formula: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one.” This formula has generally been used throughout human history to justify sacrificing someone else. As René Girard points out, from ancient human groups to modern societies, whenever conflicts arise the natural way to find reconciliation is to unite against a common enemy.

Of course, there’s a lot of this going on throughout the Star Trek franchise. One conversation in Into Darkness explicitly points this out when Kirk (Chris Pine) unites with his enemy Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch), and explains it to Spock:

Kirk: The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Spock: An Arabic proverb attributed to a prince who was betrayed and decapitated by his own subjects.

Kirk: Well, it’s still a hell of a quote.

Photo by Helen Sloan/courtesy HBO

A scene with Catelyn Stark (l) played by Michelle Fairley from HBO’s Game of Thrones. Photo by Helen Sloan/courtesy HBO

Is there anything morally redeeming about Game of Thrones? Does the hit HBO series even have a moral vision?

The show is certainly entertaining, almost addictively so, and as Game of Thrones wraps up its third season on Sunday, the ratings reflect that popularity: a record of more than 5.5 million viewers have followed the ruthless struggles for power among the teeming clans of Westeros, the medieval-looking world created by fantasy novelist George R.R. Martin.

That success has also guaranteed that the show will be back for a fourth year of mayhem and passion, swords and sorcery, despite this season’s many violent endings. Or, as one tweet put it after the bloody penultimate episode: “Why doesn’t George R.R. Martin use twitter? Because he killed all 140 characters.”

But therein lies the moral problem for some: The appeal of the series seems bound up in the senseless violence and amoral machinations – not to mention the free-wheeling sex – that the writers use to dramatize this brutish world of shifting alliances and dalliances.

That, in turn, has prompted intense debates about whether Christians should watch Games of Thrones at all, or whether the show’s only possible virtue is depicting how the world would look if Christ had never been born – or what it could look like if Christianity disappeared tomorrow.