Popular Culture

Celebrity Activists

An aid-worker friend in Darfur has sent e-mail updates during the past year about the escalating crisis there. They often included the worried questions: “Is this on the radar in the States? Does anyone care?”

I always answered, sadly, that despite some notable exceptions (New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof for one), Sudan largely went unmentioned in the mainstream press—that is, until mid-May of this year, when the issue consistently made it into the headlines. According to the Associated Press, the three network evening newscasts had devoted less than a combined 10 minutes to the conflict in 2006—and in under a week, that airtime skyrocketed. Suddenly, everyone was talking about Darfur.

Why? Certainly years of activist work was finally paying off. But another factor was star power. Actor George Clooney traveled to a Sudanese refugee camp armed with a video camera and his celebrity, then returned to speak at a well-attended rally in Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, NBC’s medical drama ER aired a special episode featuring two attractive doctors getting their hands dirty in the African nation, with the actors appearing on news magazine shows to speak about the crisis.

Clooney and the ER docs aren’t alone. Chances are that by the time you read this, several other international hot spots will have had their moment in the limelight—thanks to a phenomenon Time columnist James Poniewozik calls “charitainment.” In Hollywood, it seems, philanthropy is the new black. From Meg Ryan to Angelina Jolie to the ubiquitous Bono, A-Listers are promoting a slew of humanitarian causes, from the fight against AIDS to the alleviation of Third World debt to trade justice issues, fueled by the knowledge that, as Poniewozik notes wryly, “in this world, nothing matters that does not have a camera pointed at it.”

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Sojourners Magazine July 2006
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To 'Kiss The Sky'

In a 2005 Rolling Stone interview, U2’s Bono repeated a quote that has been the hallmark of his own career: “The music that really turns me on is either running toward God or away from God.” This is exactly the sort of music that also turns on critic Bill Friskics-Warren in his new book I’ll Take You There: Pop Music and the Urge for Transcendence—from the overtly God-ward ballads of folk musician Julie Miller to the defiant protests of Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor.

An elegant writer whose turns of phrase are as illuminating as their content, Friskics-Warren’s approach to popular music has been shaped as much by his early ecstatic encounter with the Beatles as by his Vanderbilt divinity degree. In I’ll Take You There, Friskics-Warren proposes that “pop music has for decades possessed the power, much as liturgies and sacred music have for centuries, to transport the human spirit and to serve as a vehicle for the transcendence we seek.”

Friskics-Warren is not the first to point out connections between religion and popular culture. However, his observations on the subject are revelatory, especially when he excavates the albums, lyrics, and musical structure of individual artists, many of whom have been overlooked elsewhere. With a startling intuition for what even the musicians themselves may not have known, Friskics-Warren shows his subjects to be the mystics, naysayers, and prophets of today, grounded on this earth with a hunger for heaven.

Too often mainstream reviewers dichotomize the sacred and the secular. Not only does Friskics-Warren explicitly denounce such categories, he declares that the eternal is inseparable from the everyday. For him, transcendence is no clichéd, out-of-body experience. In fact, it shares more in common with the bawdy ecstasy of Teresa of Avila than the prim austerity usually associated with spiritual enlightenment.

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Sojourners Magazine March 2006
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Mixed Messages

Ricky Martin is trying to carve out a new vocation as modern day “hero.” The hip-swaying, loca-living superstar is lending his fame to the anti-trafficking movement by appearing in ads designed to educate the public to the horrors of modern-day slavery.

Martin is rightfully disturbed that 27 million people are currently enslaved in forced labor and sex-related industries. Close to 80 percent of trafficked victims are female and 50 percent are children. He probably heard testimonies of young girls who are kidnapped or coerced into brothels, robbed of all their rights, and forced to service men, sometimes 15 to 20 times a day.

“Human trafficking is one of the cruelest and craziest problems in the world today,” Martin said. Preach it, brother.

But as I reflected on the goodwill of the former Menudo heartthrob, I filed through my mental Ricky Martin file cabinet, trying to recall his exploits prior to his new work as humanitarian. There was his music video from the groundbreaking release “Livin’ La Vida Loca.” Martin depicted the “crazy life” as an existence of wild dancing and even wilder bedroom activity. I vaguely recall a scene involving hot wax, candles, and a young woman who could have been exaggeratingly referred to as “half-dressed.” I realized that every hazy recollection of Martin involved sex, lust, or some kind of heart-pounding, dance-related promiscuity.

This guy has been peddling sex! He’s made his fortune on a kind of R-rated, MTV-sanitized pornography.

I doubt Martin sees any connection between his career as international sex symbol and the fact that the modern world is as overheated as the Roman Empire on a rowdy night. After all, he is overshadowed by a North American industry that produces truckloads of pornography for domestic shelves and international distribution, blanketing the globe with increasingly raunchy sex acts.

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Sojourners Magazine February 2006
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Don't Have a Sacred Cow, Man!

When The Simpsons creator Matt Groening was a Boy Scout, he stole a Gideon Bible from a hotel room and underlined all the dirty parts. Confronted by a furious scoutmaster, Groening (pronounced graining) recalled in a recent interview with My Generation magazine, "I prayed to God and said, ‘I know you'll forgive me for not believing in you.'"

That irreverent-verging-on-sacrilegious attitude is still very much present in the world's most-watched television show (yes, it nets more viewers than Baywatch). The Simpsons may go to church, pray, and quote scripture, but the preaching, the prayer, or the passage is almost always a setup or a punch line.

"It's like a Trojan horse that gets past people's radar because it's superficially conservative," says head writer George Meyer. "The show's subtext, however, is completely subversive and wild."

It was the image of a rebellious, youth-corrupting Bart Simpson that caused many conservatives-George Bush I, among them-to decry the show as evidence of America's moral decline when it debuted in 1989. But recently The Simpsons has gotten a lot of positive ink for its thoughtful portrayal of faith and family values, including cover stories in Christianity Today and The Christian Century. What changed?

Perhaps Christians began to realize what PRISM, the magazine of Evangelicals for Social Action, said back in 1997: We need to appreciate The Simpsons because "we need a sense of humor. Without it, we lose the ability to criticize ourselves." For even as appreciation for the show has grown in church circles, its edge has gotten sharper and its barbs more pointed as it skewers faith healers, missionaries, Christian theme parks, and Unitarians on its cartoon kabob.

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 2001
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It's the Real Thing

Responding to the tragedy at Columbine High School, educator Thomas de Zengotita wrote in a recent issue of Harper’s that a "hybrid entity with a structuring life of its own has emerged on the planet." This "entity" is identified as a new public culture that blurs the borders between reality and simulation. Littleton’s Eric

Harris and Dylan Klebold became caught up in this limbo, as have countless other teen-agers and adults—though the vast majority with consequences that are less destructive, yet not completely harmless.

This illusory culture, which De Zengotita calls an "entity" but the Apostle Paul might call a "principality and power," is able to consume those who haven’t established their own sense of who they are—especially, but not exclusively, young people. For young Christians and those who walk along beside them, the call to engage this invasion of illusion is especially critical.

For nearly 2,000 years, the power of God has kept the onslaught of such principalities and powers at bay through baptism, confirmation, holy communion, and the other sacraments of Christianity. Spiritual direction, discipleship, and biblical teaching also have proven themselves to be effective in guiding people into maturity and freedom. Though the gospel has always been about the discerning of truth from deception, the new paradigms and tools at the end of this century create a context that is dramatically different than ever before. Will the church of the new millennium be as successful in creating safe space for young people and at helping them distinguish the simulated warfare on a computer screen from the spiritual warfare of the heart?

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The Other Anti-Semitism

Historically, the animus of anti-Semitism directed against both Arabs and Jews has been the same. It has been a largely Western Christian struggle against two Semitic civilizations-one that it found living within its midst and that it saw as an internal threat; the other that it confronted as an external challenge but that it similarly defined as a threat to its survival.

Both Jews and Arab Muslims were perceived as threats-their organizations, their wealth, and even their corporate identities were seen as damaging to the West. And the results have been devastating to both peoples. Both groups have suffered a history of vilification and both have endured campaigns of systematic violence.

Several years ago I did a study of political cartoons and other forms of popular culture, comparing the depiction of Jews in Czarist Russia and pre-Nazi Germany with that of the Arabs in the United States in the 1970s and ‘80s. In both content and form the treatments given to each were identical. The two most prevalent German and Russian depictions of Jews paralleled the two most common images of the Arabs projected in U.S. cartoons. The fat grotesque Jewish banker or merchant found its contemporary counterpart in the obese oil sheik, and the images of the Arab and Jewish terrorists differed only in their attire.

Both groups were uniformly treated as alien and hostile. They were accused of not sharing Western values and were both viewed as prone to conspiracy. They were both seen as usurpers of Western wealth and were defined as threats to Western civilization. Jews were associated with capitalist greed and anarchist violence and communism. Arab avarice was held responsible for runaway inflation, and they were seen as the main agents responsible for international terrorism.

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 1998
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A Faith to Life and Die With

Shirley’s Old Book Shop in Springfield, Missouri, was, in 1980, a perfect sort of place for book lovers. Complete with musty smells, dusty shelves, and a witty proprietor, the shop promised that this time, maybe, you could find the book to change your life. And I was in the market for that.

Dressed in a black pullover that roughly matched her smudgy wig, Shirley presided over her shop with a certain regal sense of what was good for us, her customers. She had an eye for the out-of-the-way book that just might work for one of the out-of-the-way folks who dropped in every few days. Shirley introduced me to Frederick Buechner.

Still carrying its orange and yellow dust jacket, the book stood out gaudily on the shelf. The Book of Bebb—an omnibus of four novels—though hefty, felt right in the hand. And at $4.60, how could I lose? It was a cheap enough price for a week or so of escape into somebody else’s story.

I’d never heard of this Buechner. Was it "Bukener," or "Buckner," or "Beekner"? I’d never heard of Bebb either, for that matter, but I took him home for a trial run. I’d probably have been more careful had I known where Leo Bebb would take me.

LEO BEBB, WEARING a porkpie hat and a raincoat that is a size too small, is the "shady minister" at the center of the four novels: Lion Country (1971), Open Heart (1972), Love Feast (1974), and Treasure Hunt (1977). I had long been wary of over-identification with characters in books, but Buechner’s Bebb and Bebb’s erstwhile sidekick Antonio Parr invited me into a world where the questions were some of my own.

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 1998
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Angles of Vision

My passion for oral history stems from the delicious thrill of hearing the hidden story. I adore listening to my grandma's tales of life in the Australian outback. Farming during the Depression was hard. Grandma's family survived by hiring immigrants to clear the paddocks. The timber was then exported, as railroad sleepers, to South Africa.

While attending university, I learned that Australia denied work to immigrants during the Depression, and I recalled grandma's stories. Government inspectors arriving at the farm were given a bottle of whiskey, and they would fill in Anglo-Saxon names for all the immigrants on the job! At its root, the practice of oral history is a refusal to let the official version be the sole standard of history.

Journalist and author Studs Terkel understands the subversive nature of oral history. His latest book, My American Century, is a "quasi-anthology" of his eight oral journals. It combines memories about the Great Depression and World War II, as well as reflections on the American Dream and the nature of work.

Terkel freely admits that the possessive pronoun in the title "reflects...a personal view....I have tried for as much balance as possible, yet objectivity...has escaped me." This is obvious from a cursory glance, which shows that only 12 of the 47 histories come from women. However, the oral testimonies that do make it into this collection offer remarkable insight into the lives of ordinary Americans and confound the official truth about America.

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 1997
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Where Have All the Choirs Gone?

Debates over "appropriate" styles of music used in worship settings demonstrate how important this aspect of liturgics is to the believer. Music challenges and provokes, as well as satisfies and comforts. Increasingly, cultural pressures about the "uses" of music are entering the life of the church—a blessing to some and a bane to others.

This article offers examples of the church's choices as it seeks to deepen its mission as an advocate of the beauty of God's created order and humankind's creativity. — The Editors

"Try to imagine how your priest might react," wrote Keith Shafer in The Living Church, "if a group of parishioners said, 'We think your sermons are too intellectual. We know you have a seminary education, but we've been watching the television evangelists, and frankly, they involve us emotionally. So we'd like you to begin preaching in a more folksy style. We're confident that you'll see how popular this sort of thing is, and that it will increase attendance at services. And please don't be inflexible...if you don't go along with us, we'll find someone who will.'"

Shafer, a church musician, was responding to the pressure under which many music ministers find themselves to accommodate what they see as an ill-considered demand for third-rate church music. And there is a strong case to be made that banal and frivolous music bespeaks a banal and frivolous theology. What does our sacred music say about the Most High? Does it say with Thomas, "My Lord and my God," or rather, as Thomas Day put it in Why Catholics Can't Sing, "Have a nice day, God!"?

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 1997
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Cartographer of the Soul

This is a story of community and joy; of hardship, optimism, and drive. A very human tale, this is a story about faith. Victoria Williams hasn’t just died, started a grassroots faith ’n’ politics movement, put out a new album, or made an oh-so-startling Pat Boone-esque career move. That’s okay; she hadn’t when I first heard of her either.

See, this is how it works: Someone you know and trust introduces you to Victoria’s world. Then you spread the word to people who know and trust you, and so on. In my case, it was my best friend, Derek, who secured my immigration into the land o’ Vic. And what a world it is.

Born on December 23, 1958, in Forbing, Louisiana—a too-small-to-get-on-the-Allstate-map town—the young Victoria had to seek excitement in the nearby town of Shreveport. Up in the northeast corner of the state, Shreveport is close enough to both Texas and Arkansas for the musical mix to incorporate Cajun, bluegrass, country, jazz, soul, and various strands of the folk-weave. Hard-rockin’ 1970s Southern boogie leavened the predominantly acoustic influences on her developing style. Vic’s first gig was in Lickskillet, in the east end of Texas. She was singing in local folk clubs by the time she was in her late teens and working in various skilled laboring jobs of the house-painter/roofer variety.

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 1997
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