Popular Culture

The Substance of Hope

Since 1991, Douglas John Hall has published three large volumes (Thinking the Faith, Professing the Faith, and Confessing the Faith--all Augsburg Fortess Publishers) designed to provide an essentially systematic theological statement that reflects the North American context. Hall addresses the most central theological concerns with an elegant and unusually lucid writing style, making his work available to a far larger audience than most professional theologians. He believes that expanding theological dialogue is critical for the well-being of the church and society.

A great responsibility of theology in North America, writes Hall, "is to help provide a people indoctrinated with the modern mythology of light with a reference for the honest exploration of its actual darkness." The American Dream and the dream of Western technocracy, with their blind commitment to optimism, are unraveling. In many quarters of the church and society, there is steadfast resistance to a recognition of this reality.

What is needed, argues Hall, is a gospel that has the substance and courage to say that real hope can start only where illusion ends. Real life does not preclude the taste of suffering and death. A "theology of the cross" is evident throughout the three volumes.

"IF OUR FAITH IS something to be understood and not merely felt or lived, what is the character of this quest for understanding and how does it relate to other aspects of our life as Christians?" In such a manner, Hall lifts up the focus of his first volume.

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 1997
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Sewing Together the Fragments

"Please. Would you close the door? We don’t want the truth to get out." So Douglas John Hall addresses his undergraduates at the beginning of "The History of Christian Thought," a course that attracted more students of literature and philosophy than theology at Montreal’s McGill University.

Comments such as this do not fly unnoticed, generating amusement for some, while bewildering others. At a time when it’s considered more hip to "deconstruct" the major texts of the Western Canon than to experience them as cohesive works of beauty, Hall’s sense of humor sounds hopelessly romantic, if not absurd.

So, if the artsy agnostics crowd outnumbers the so-called "religious" in a class on theology, then why isn’t anybody reading it? Harper Publishing has estimated the market for serious theology in North America at around 12,000 people, and with the rising popularity of more emotive forms of worship, many Christians fail to see why they would want anything more than a well-thumbed King James on their nightstand. Yet Hall is emphatic about the increased relevance of theology in our time, even if he doesn’t expect to see his royalties match Deepak Chopra’s.

"I would never exchange the writing of some musicologist for a Bach partita or fugue—please!" he told me, in a voice recalling the rumbling of a distant summer thunderstorm. "However, if I’m going to understand as best I can the Bach partita or fugue, I had better read some musicology.

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 1997
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A Window to the Sacred

For nearly two millennia, countless artists have depicted the Christian story in images that reflect their own particular time and culture: Jesus, Mary, and the saints have been envisioned in forms as diverse as those of Italian peasants, African nobility, South American villagers, and Dutch bourgeoisie. The images convey the fundamental truth that while the Christian faith began in a specific time and place, all peoples can nevertheless claim ownership of it.

And so it may not be surprising to see paintings that feature a Navajo Christ or a Hopi Virgin and Child, works of art that blend Native American imagery with Christian themes. The unexpected part is the artist responsible for these images: Father John Giuliani, 64, is the son of Italian immigrants and a resident of Connecticut, a man who is more likely to be found working in an inner-city soup kitchen than on the windswept plains of the West.

But while Giuliani is not Native American himself, his work reveals a deep appreciation for Indian culture and traditions. The Native American faces in his paintings are almost mesmerizing in their intensity, with solemn eyes that hint of mystery and richly textured details that reflect the traditional dress and artifacts of the tribe represented. Father Giuliani’s paintings draw the viewer into a world that is both familiar and unknown, blending two cultures and two spiritual traditions into one harmonious whole.

The key to understanding Giuliani’s work is that these are not just paintings, but icons. For centuries the Eastern Orthodox Church has viewed icons as windows to the divine, a way for worshipers to gain access to the spiritual realm. In his work Giuliani draws on the techniques and forms of Byzantine iconography, but reinterprets them in ways that reflect Native American culture and spirituality.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 1997
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A Translator of Transcendence

Paul Schrader is a strange fish in a big lake. The fish is a film director and Hollywood the lake. Unlike the likes of Quentin Tarantino and a burgeoning tide of young filmmakers whose primary frame of reference seems increasingly to be the vast lexicon of movies themselves, Paul Schrader's imagination was shaped by one of Hollywood's biggest taboos—religion.

And unlike peers George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, Schrader holds little interest in producing sure-fire Everyman dramas. He prefers making a case for the marginal and the bane of the status quo. In all this Schrader has elbowed a place for himself in the film industry.

As a writer Paul Schrader has to his credit Raging Bull, Mosquito Coast, and The Last Temptation of Christ. As a director his repertoire includes Patty Hearst, Light of Day, and The Comfort of Strangers. Many argue that the little-known film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is his masterpiece. But Schrader's signature works are Taxi Driver, American Gigolo, and Light Sleeper. In these films, more than any others, one witnesses the spiritual mindscape of Paul Schrader's cinematic imagination.

Schrader's films do not directly reflect the fact that he was once a pre-seminarian reared on the catechisms of the Dutch Christian Reformed Church. Watching movies was never a casual affair, as it is for most of us today, because as a youth he was prohibited from such worldly activity. His subversive aesthetic awakening coincided roughly with his joining in Vietnam War protests. If Schrader was already a misfit among the conservative subculture of his childhood, he is no less so in Hollywood today.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 1997
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One Ring to Rule Them All

Most of us have on our shelves a novel that, more than any other book, speaks to the spiritual crisis facing America. At more than a thousand pages, it offers insights into addiction, the loss of innocence, and the nature of faith that are more profound than a month of editorials.

It is also a fantasy that's 40 years old. I'm referring to The Lord of the Rings, the trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien, which this year celebrates its 40th anniversary since first publication in America. After rereading the trilogy on its birthday, I found myself hard pressed to find a more socially relevant work of literature.

For the uninitiated, The Lord of the Rings is the story of a magic ring that allows its wearer to disappear. The ring comes into the possession of Frodo Baggins, a small creature called a hobbit. Frodo discovers that the ring is the creation of Sauron, the evil Dark Lord. Over time the ring warps the mind and spirit of its user, transforming him into a craven, egomaniacal whelp. It can only be destroyed by dropping it into the fires of Mount Doom, which is in the heart of Mordor-the "Land of Shadow" where Sauron dwells. As Frodo plods toward Mount Doom, he becomes weaker with every step, the ring weighing him down and poisoning his soul.

As Tolkien fans will note, no doubt with irritation, this is a facile summary of a work of breathtaking complexity-like describing The Iliad as a book about a fight over a girl. Tolkien's world of Middle Earth, with its hobbits, elves, dwarves, and wizards, is as palatable as James Joyce's Dublin or Anne Tyler's Baltimore; the characters as believable as any in Tolstoy. It's also a deadly serious work, as Paul Kocher observed in his book Master of Middle Earth: "The Lord of the Rings stretches the imagination with its account of a world in peril....[It] does on occasion evoke smiles, but most of the time the issues go too deep for laughter."

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 1996
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From the Church to the Union Hall

"The songs of the working people have always been their sharpest statement," wrote novelist John Steinbeck, "and the one statement that cannot be destroyed....Songs are the statement of a people. Listening to their songs teaches you more about a people than any other means, for into the songs go all the hopes and hurts, the angers, fears, the wants and aspirations."

Whether it's the turn-of-the-century "Hard Times in the Mill," describing how "cotton mill boys don't make enough/To buy them tobacco and a box of snuff," or a "A Miner's Life," with its warning of both natural dangers ("watch the rocks, they're falling daily") and exploitation by the bosses ("Keep your hand upon the dollar/And your eye upon the scale"), working people have turned to music to limn their experience, protest their conditions, heap scorn on oppressors, celebrate heroes, and rally one another in the cause of organized labor.

Sometimes the writers and composers of these songs are known, as in the case of Florence Reece. After a band of deputy sheriffs broke into her cabin looking for her husband, Sam, a union organizer, she tore off a page from a wall calendar and penned what perhaps is the most famous song to come out of the coal fields: the defiant, decision-demanding "Which Side Are You On?"

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 1996
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Arias of True Devotion

The odd thing about “High Church Christianity” is its historical association with the needs of workers and peasants....One justification for the chanting, the incense, and the gorgeous choral music was that these things would convey a feeling of hope to the workers oppressed in dark satanic mills and mines. The popish ceremonies and music were supposed to help the common people feel like important participants in an important act. —Thomas Day, Why Catholics Can’t Sing

In one of the most striking scenes in the opera Ines de Castro, Death appears to the Spanish mistress of the Prince of Portugal in the form of a tired old woman. As the woman assures Ines that there is nothing to be afraid of, that she is her friend and Ines must come with her in the end, an offstage chorus echoes her words, giving her operatic lines a liturgical resonance. It is reminiscent of a preconciliar Catholic priest quietly intoning the Ordinary of the Mass because he is required to, while the many voices of the choir in the loft do the real work of transforming consciousness.

“I’ve always been interested in liturgy and inspired by it since I was a boy,” explains James MacMillan, the composer of the opera. “Its non-narrative aspect has influenced my liturgical music. Having said that, there is that in me which is interested in pure potential creative conflict in those two approaches to theatricality—that is, the stylized, ritualistic, non-narrative sense of theater, and a human dimension that goes underneath the artificiality, or the stylized nature, of pure liturgy.”

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 1996
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In Rhythm with the World.

Who among us dislikes music? Sure, we all have types of music we don't really care for: opera, punk, rap, rock and roll, top-40 pop, country and western, jazz, or-yuck-show tunes. Yet, nearly from the time of birth, humans have a universal appreciation for some kind of music. Music plays a major role in many areas of our lives we hold dear to our hearts, including our religious celebrations.

Perhaps humanity's innate attraction to music corresponds to the divine music God left vibrating at the core of our beings. (Who taught toddlers to dance anyway?) The music made by humans around the world and throughout the centuries is but an echo of the harmony, order, and tone that God uses to hold the whole universe together. It reverberates throughout all of creation, including our own human bodies, and is expressed in a myriad of different ways.

Music, liturgy, painting, poetry-and even cooking, conversing, and cleaning-in some way reveal the resonance of God deep within us. Pushing through the soil of the Fall, this seed of God's creative grace comes to light as the wonderfully diverse cultures of the human race around the world. Though all of God's creation expresses the divine touch, this creative power is multiplied in the hands (or mouth, feet, and hips!) of those who are made in God's image, who alone are charged to be its stewards, and who are endowed with a unique consciousness of their role.

A Sufi legend from Persia relates that after God created our bodies out of clay, our souls, which naturally love freedom, refused to be imprisoned within such limited confines. So God had the angels play their music, which moved the souls to ecstasy. However, not having bodies, the souls could not hear the music clearly. Nor could they express their joyful response to such a sound. So, in order to hear more clearly and dance more freely, the souls entered the bodies that God had prepared for them, bringing the clay to life.

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 1996
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Corresponding with Crisis

Evelyn Waugh once suggested to Thomas Merton that, fine though he was as an author, his gift as a correspondent was so profound that he ought to give up every other form of writing in order to devote himself to letters. Merton's 50 publications demonstrate that Waugh's advice wasn't taken, but still Merton found time for a great many

letters and most have now been published, though it has taken nearly 10 years of editing work and five big volumes to do so.

Freedom to Witness is subtitled Letters in Time of Crisis. True, each era has felt for those then living to be a time of crisis, but rarely has crisis been more teeth-rattling than in the century that is about to end. Merton's life filled barely half of this blood-stained era. Born in France as World War I was getting under way, he died 54 years later at a conference center in Thailand, just one border removed from the Indochina War. His body was flown back home in a U.S. Air Force plane bringing back soldiers killed in Vietnam-just the right company for Merton.

Merton as monk had the right address not to notice that the world was in crisis. His thoughts on entering the Abbey of Gethsemani (just three days after the attack on Pearl Harbor) suggest he had no intention of keeping up with events beyond the monastic enclosure. No one ever walked out on the world with a louder slam of the door. Merton intended to leave his name at the monastery gate and all his literary ambitions with it.

The abbot, the son of a book-binder, turned out to be a book-loving man. In time he noticed Merton's gifts. As a matter of obedience, Merton was sent back to the typewriter.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 1996
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The Mystery of the Resurrected Rabbi

It was Holy Thursday. It seemed the appropriate question: "Professor Crossan, the Jesus Seminar just announced its conclusions on the resurrection. The seminar, of which you are a member, has concluded that Jesus didn't really rise from the dead. What's up with that?" Or words to that effect. I went to hear John Dominic Crossan, professor at DePaul

University and the author of many books on the historical Jesus, including Who Killed Jesus? Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus, with all the conservative evangelical skepticism I could muster. To me, Crossan and the Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars whose controversial pronouncements on the historical realities of Jesus have angered many, are the pariahs of biblical scholarship.

Crossan smiled. He's a slight man with an Irish lilt to his voice. His manner, like I imagine his oft-cited St. Patrick's, could charm serpents to the sea. "For me, it could go either direction," he said. "Whether he rose physically from the grave is not central. The effect was that people, after the resurrection, were now associating Jesus with their connection to God. He was providing them a way to get in touch with the spiritual. Whether he was in the body or not, the disciples were experiencing Jesus in a radically different way-regardless of distance, time, or physical obstacle. I mean, he was coming through locked doors."

Provocative words. The seminar has sought to dismantle systematically many of the core beliefs of Christianity (see "The Jesus Seminar," below). Yet while affirming his view that the resurrection was not historical fact, Crossan did acknowledge that something historically valid happened after the crucifixion that was real and powerful.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 1996
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