Devils We Know

Joan Marcus/Stagezine

THE DEVIL HAS long been wildly popular on stage, dating back to the Middle Ages when church authorities routinely cancelled performances because they worried that representations of the devil were so deliciously tempting that weak believers might falter. The dualistic image of a good, sweet angel on one shoulder and dirty demon on the other has infiltrated popular culture from children’s cartoons to adult sitcoms, signifying the struggle of our tempted conscience. And the devil always has the better jokes. In literary works, such as Paradise Lost and Doctor Faustus, the devil’s presence has driven plots forward through acts of temptation, leading the protagonist into some lusty or murderous act. The cliché is brought to life: “The devil made me do it.”

In 2015, the devil makes a serious comeback on Broadway in a successful run of Robert Askins’ new play, Hand to God, nominated for five Tony Awards, including best play and best direction. Askins takes his audience on a different kind of devilish journey.

In the basement Sunday school room of a Lutheran church in contemporary Texas, we meet a woman named Margery, who is experiencing profound grief after the recent death of her husband. She tries her best to move forward, filling her life to the brim with religious activity, starting a teen puppet ministry in the church and teaching the youth group to make puppets that will sing songs and tell Bible stories. Her son, Jason, a student in this fledgling class, has created a hand puppet named Tyrone who seems fairly ordinary, harmless, and cute. Jason is a good puppeteer, gifted, in fact. We see his talent unfold as he tries to impress Jessica, a girl in the youth group, with an artful rendition of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” routine.

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July 2015
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How Not To Respond to Grief

Image via Magnus Wennman/

All of us are understandably sad about Paris — devastated. Many people have used striped profile pictures, candles, and flowers to express our collective solidarity. But in the wake of tragedy, almost half of the governors of the U.S. have responded with fear, announcing that they will do whatever they can to thwart the acceptance of Syrian refugees — from cutting funding for nonprofit resettlement agencies, to demanding religious screening tests.

If there’s one thing I learned from some of my friends who are refugees, it’s how to respond to grief. And there’s no one approach and they didn’t always get it right. But sometimes they did: Some refugees, in the shadow of shocking sadness, sang more than usual, prayed louder, invited more friends over for dinner, cooked their parent’s recipes. None of them responded with terrorism.

'That Song You Sing For The Dead'

BIBLICAL LAMENT includes both pleas to God for help and mournful dirges. Sometimes they are rooted in individual travails and grief, other times in anguish for those crushed by injustice or war.

The psalmist and the prophets dig deep into visceral images of bodily suffering—and stretch up, out, yearning to find symbols and metaphors in nature that might capture the mercy and presence of a God who, the psalmist isn’t afraid to say, is sometimes a bit elusive.

The album Carrie & Lowell is indie musician Sufjan Stevens’ multifaceted lament: For a mother, Carrie, he lost at least twice—to mental illness, addiction, and abandonment when he was a child and to cancer when he was a man. For the grief that surprised him after her death. For his inability, as he sings to his mother, to “save you from your sorrow,” hinting at that lingering, impossible guilt felt by so many children of troubled parents. Stevens reaches no tidy resolution in the course of the work (although early on, in the first song, he does offer that most basic, difficult, and saving grace: “I forgive you, mother”).

So why would you want to listen to something that speaks of so much pain? For starters, these are exquisitely spare, beautiful, and haunting folk-not-quite-rock songs. Stevens’ gift for hook and melody here is distilled, deceptively delicate, carried by few instruments and subtle effects. Layered vocals and harmonies swell up on a bridge or carry a song wordlessly to the end, like waiting choruses of angels, or ghosts.

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Songs of Ourselves: Grief, Hope, and Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan Stevens. Black and white version of image via Tammy Lo/

Sufjan Stevens. Black and white version of image via Tammy Lo/

Sufjan Stevens’ newest album, Carrie & Lowell (out now), is a heartbreaking meditation on personal grief. It’s also joyful, baffling, and delicately mundane. 

In the spirit of a listening party, a few of us sat down to play through the album, sharing liner notes and meditations on the songs that grabbed each of us. Conclusion: it's really, really good. Stream Carrie & Lowell here, and listen along with us below.


Death With Dignity” — Tripp Hudgins, ethnomusicologist, Sojourners contributor, blogger at Anglobaptist

Tripp: I love the first song of an album. I think of it as the introduction to a possible new friend. “Where The Streets Have No Name” on U2’s Joshua Tree or “Signs of Life” on Pink Floyd’s Momentary Lapse of Reason, that first track can be the thesis statement to a sonic essay.

So, when I get a new album — even in this day of digital albums or collections of singles — a first track can make or break an album for me. I sat down and listened attentively to “Death With Dignity.” It does not disappoint. With it Stevens introduces the subject of the album — his grief around troubled relationship with his mother and her death — as well as the sonic palate he will use throughout the album.

Simple guitar work, layered voicing, and a little synth, the album is musically sparse. The tempo reminds me of movies from the nineteen sixties or seventies where the action takes place over a long road trip.

Catherine Woodiwiss: I was thinking road trip, too. There’s real motion musically, which, given a claustrophobic theme and circular lyrics, is a thankful point of release. It’s a generous act, or maybe an avoidant one — he could have made us sit tight and watch, and he doesn’t quite do it.

Julie Polter: This isn’t a road movie, but the reference to that era of films just made me think of Cat Stevens’ soundtrack for Harold and Maude, especially “Trouble.” (This album is one-by-one bringing back to me other gentle songs of death and duress and all the songs I listen to when I want to cry).

A Tame Kind of 'Wild'

Screenshot from the trailer for 'Wild.'

Screenshot from the trailer for 'Wild.'

Director Jean-Marc Vallee (The Dallas Buyer’s Club) and writer Nick Hornby (author of High Fidelity and About a Boy) attempt valiantly to solve this problem, and achieve some moments of real beauty in the process. However, they never quite find a way to effectively connect Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) in her lowest moments, which include heroin addiction, the termination of a pregnancy, and divorce, with the woman we’re watching hike from Mexico to Canada — a woman who, while troubled, seems to have it considerably more together.

It also doesn’t help that the conversations Strayed does have on the trail tend towards the kind of dialogue that feels less like natural conversation and more like a talk between archetypes spouting bumper-sticker wisdom. The conversations that come up, about choices, regrets, and mistakes made, are all valuable. But the way they happen feels sanitized.

Ultimately, Wild does manage to present some solid thoughts on the process of grief and redemption. Strayed’s observation that everything in her life, both good and bad, led her to becoming a stronger, better person is important. Just as important is the film’s point that our relationships with others are vital to our survival and growth.

There’s no doubt that Strayed’s own experience was powerful and tough. But in its translation to film, particularly a film with a plot and performance tailor-made for awards season, Wild is a movie that’s afraid to upset people. It acknowledges the hard stuff, but barely hints at the true emotional complexities of its story and of its main character. Where it ought to challenge, it merely suggests. And while that’s okay, it’s disappointing that it isn’t more.

Out of the Silence

An angel holds the earth in silence. Image courtesy Danilo Sanino/shutterstock.c

An angel holds the earth in silence. Image courtesy Danilo Sanino/

One summer my cousin Betty and I sneaked through the barbed-wire fence of a neighbor’s orchard and ate so many wild plums right off the tree that we almost made ourselves sick. Betty was 13 and I was 9, and I adored her. I still do.

Betty is dying right now. She might not make it till Christmas, which is really bad timing in my opinion. Yes, I talk with God about this. It’s one thing for me to lose a beloved cousin: I’m old enough to know from experience that, while the pain can feel like a raw wound that might never heal, losing those we love is a normal part of life. But I keep wondering, What kind of message is God sending to Betty’s family by jerking her away from them during this holy season of Advent? Doesn’t God care that they are already plunged into grief in anticipation of losing someone they love so much?

Yes, I talk with God about my fears, too, mostly in the form of questions from the little five-year-old kid inside me. What’s going to happen? Where are we going? What will it be like? Will it hurt? Do I have to? And, Why?

A Shard of Hope: HBO’s 'The Leftovers' on Grief

Image via TheLeftoversHBO on Facebook.

Image via TheLeftoversHBO on Facebook.

As a native New Yorker, I can never forget Tuesday, September 11, 2001. I was in college, but heading to my part-time job that morning. My car was being fixed, so my father drove me to work. There was an unusual amount of traffic and as we turned on the radio, we heard a reporter talk about a plane that hit the World Trade Center.

The first thought we had was that this was an accident. It had to be an accident, right? As we listened to the reports though, the second plane hit and it was clear that something was very, horribly, terrifyingly wrong.

From our office in Queens, we watched the towers burn and then collapse. The image of the great cloud of smoke and debris encompassing the skyline has been burned on my brain. And a few days later, while handing out sandwiches to mourners at the makeshift memorial at Union Square with my parents’ church and non-profit organization, the feeling of hugging a total stranger while she wept on my shoulder will never leave me.

It is impossible to forget.

I must admit the timeliness on the part of HBO to air the season finale of The Leftovers in the week of 9/11. Tom Perotta, who authored the play on which the show is based, purposely included allusions to 9/11. Rather than a theological treatise on the Rapture, it is a beautiful case study in grief and the excruciating tension between the desire to move forward and the need to remember.

When Christians Lack Imagination, They Lack Love

Jung Hsuan /

Jung Hsuan /

Christians often talk about actively changing the world, but too often, we just sit still and passively watch the struggles of others without participating, leading, or caring. We don’t love.

Why? Because many Christians have an inability to use their imaginations.

People who can’t imagine are susceptible to bigotry, racism, hatred, and violence toward others. Why? Because they can’t imagine any other scenario, perspective, or opinion other than their own. They have an inability to see themselves in someone else’s shoes. They can’t see beyond their own narrow reality.

When you can’t imagine, you can’t empathize, understand, or relate with the actions, struggles, pain, suffering, persecution, and trials of others — you become apathetic, unmoved, stoic, and inactive.

Whether our differences are gender-related, age-related, race-related, culturally related, politically related, economically related, socially related, theologically related, value-related, or related to any countless number of factors, overcoming them requires imagination.

When you can’t imagine, you can’t celebrate, appreciate, admire, and joyfully love others. You disconnect yourself from humanity.

Part II: Semblances of Hope

Next to a glass casing displaying neatly stacked skulls, Rwamasirabo flipped through the pages of a dusty notebook holding the church’s paperwork. He pulled out a church program. On it, was a photo of his former friend, Father Athanase Seromba, a 31 year-old Roman Catholic priest who was responsible for killing 3,000 of his Tutsi congregation members. The priest wore a black oxford with a white clerical collar accessorized with a distrusting mustache and a toothy smile seething betrayal. Rwamasirabo stuffed the program back into the notebook.

Rwamasirabo’s thin stature commands respect and the lines in his face convey tragic sorrow. His careful, soft-spoken voice expressed feelings of loss. With worn hands, Rwamasirabo searched through a pile of salvaged rubbish to find the chalice from which communion was served.

It reminded him of his daughter.

'We Will Never Forget You'

ANYTIME A PUBLIC figure dies, there are spontaneous vigils, piles of flowers and stuffed toys heaped at the star’s home or in a town square. But these outpourings of public grief aren’t reserved only for the rich and famous. In communities across the country, everyday people hold vigils when a child is abducted or a family murdered in a senselessly random act of violence. Sometimes a prayer is murmured. Often, it’s an opportunity for neighbors to mourn their shared loss.

Getting the message right in public grieving and memorializing hardly demands immense wealth or high-minded, thoughtful analysis. I’m heartened by impromptu candlelight vigils in the rain and messy memorials, because grief isn’t organized or tidy. On vacation in Hawaii last summer, boogie boards jammed in the sand as makeshift headstones seemed to line the Big Island’s Puna Coast, glittering stones and leis assembled at the base of each monument. “Sail away,” one paddleboard inscription read. Beside it, a laminated sheet of photos was tacked to a palm tree. On some of the more menacing lava rock cliffs, where it was clear more than a few had perished trying to catch a deadly wave, entire burial grounds with a dozen granite headstones were lined up, matching benches facing the row of markers.

While those cenotaphs, like the white crosses along desert highways and at urban intersections, could be troubling (so much sadness out in the open), we become more empathetic when we’re forced to slow down, reminded of our mortality and how loss—or even just the threat of impermanence—permeates most of our lives.

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