Review

Breaking Down the Invisible Walls

OVER THE PAST 2,000 years, Christians have found myriad ways to divide the body of Christ. We are now more divided than ever, with more than 40,000 Christian denominations worldwide. Perhaps, in this context, we are asking the wrong questions. Do we really understand God’s desire for the church to be one? Do we as individuals have a yearning for the unification of the body of Christ? Why do we create the divisions we create? Why do we maintain the divisions that already exist? How can we break through these barriers to heal a broken church?

Christena Cleveland sets out to answer all of these questions and more in her latest book, Disunity in Christ. Cleveland is a young, energetic, and brilliant teacher, speaker, and researcher in the fields of social psychology and faith and reconciliation. For those concerned with reconciliation in the church, which should be all of us, hers is a voice to take seriously.

In Disunity, Cleveland quickly breaks the ice by poking fun at herself and by pointing to her own personal prejudices and biases that have led to her categorically labeling fellow brothers and sisters in Christ as either a “right Christian” or “wrong Christian.” The reader is immediately able to connect with her and realize the ways in which we have created division in our own lives, whether because of race, gender, orientation, education, location, socio-economic status, theology, or political affiliation. It also becomes apparent why we prefer our homogenous groups.

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Viewing Community

THERE ARE apparently 2,000 film festivals around the world, so the format of red carpet arrivals, gala screenings, and Q&A sessions that appear all but scripted in advance have become well and truly entrenched. The best festivals recognize that their purpose is to cast a spell over filmgoers and filmmakers alike, inviting them into a spacious place where the heart of the dream that led to the film being made and the audience’s reason for watching it can beat in a community of people who thirst for art that gives life. Unsurprisingly, the biggest festivals find it hardest to pull this off—asking for contemplative mutuality at Cannes or Sundance is like looking for a Buddhist tea garden at Disney World.

Yet film festivals can be places where small is indeed beautiful. It’s only the movies that need to be big—or at least their capacity to alchemize with the viewer’s autobiographical narrative. The trappings of VIP lounges, paparazzi, and celebrity gossip are just that: They trap the aesthetic air, creating distance between people and art. Smaller festivals may be more capable of nurturing something that really feels like community.

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Tapping the Sacred Power of Song

MUSIC IS OFTEN regarded and consumed as something that fills a space—the chords of an organ resounding off the walls of a sanctuary, the beats of a drum circle riding on the breeze through a park, the harmonies of an orchestra flowing from my headphones into my ears as I write. Music even transcends physical spaces to permeate the heart and the soul with emotion.

In Music as Prayer, pastor and musician Thomas H. Troeger invites the reader to cherish and engage in music as an act of prayer. Taking into account the metaphorical, scientific, and practical aspects of music-making, Troeger illustrates the power of music to not only fill a space but to also clear a way for meaning and creativity. Building upon Henry Ward Beecher’s metaphor of a boat stuck on the shore, Troeger describes how the “mighty ocean-tone” of a church organ brings the “tide” needed to lift up the members of the congregation and set them free from the shore.

In what Troeger calls a “dialogic process,” music lends rich metaphors to language and changes the effect of language upon the listener. The same song played in two distinct styles can convey two completely different sets of emotions.

From the ancient flute invented 35,000 years ago to today’s smartphone streaming songs on demand, music has occupied a central part of the human story. The mystery of music lies in the way that sound waves can blend into melodies that speak directly to the human yearning for wholeness. Creating space for both celebration and lament, music has the capacity to hold opposing emotions in the same breath. Music can provide release from suppressed inner tension and give voice to even the most unspeakable emotions.

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Can Grounded Faith Save Us?

CLIMATE CHANGE and its accompanying issues are mammoth topics. David Tracey’s The Earth Manifesto and Michael S. Northcott’s A Political Theology of Climate Change are ambitious and sound theoretical and practical treatments.

With different faith backgrounds, each brings to the task the urgency of the moment. Tracey is a Vancouver urban ecologist, a fiction and nonfiction writer, a writing teacher, and an avid housing co-op dweller with his wife and two school-age children. He has spearheaded several community garden co-ops. Northcott is a priest in the Church of England and a University of Edinburgh social ethicist who has written on understanding space and its sacred sharing, urban ministry and theology, and now this, his third book on climate change.

Tracey’s The Earth Manifesto dives right into the ecological mandates of our time and place. It gently and consistently employs an implicit Buddhist perspective to offer concise chapters—really a set of tools—to name, address, engage, and sustain a meaningful citizens’ involvement. These are expressed in two parts: three big ideas and three big steps. The ideas consist of “Nature Is Here,” “Wilderness Is Within,” and “Cities Are Alive.” Tracey’s three big steps are “groundtruthing”—engaging deeply in a place to shape one’s environmental efforts; political advocacy; and building a community to help spread a campaign for change.

Two concepts stand out vividly. Tracey’s explanation of groundtruthing conveys the need to test a theoretical perspective by getting right on the ground to verify its potential in the concrete. One intuits incarnational theology here. He also affirms the nature of engagement from its French origins to mean “someone passionately committed to a cause”: pledged, dedicated, or devoted. For me this summons the discipline of spirituality in the service of social justice.

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Security State Superheroes

THE CLASSIC COMIC book hero is given a post-WikiLeaks spin in the film Captain America: The Winter Soldier. He realizes that he is being asked to participate in the extrajudicial killing of people whom a magic formula has decided might threaten the established order in the future. It’s intriguing that even Nick Fury, one of Captain America’s “bosses” at the superhero super-agency S.H.I.E.L.D. (lines of authority are never particularly clear when super powers are in play), almost goes along with this.

To build a new world, sometimes you have to tear the old one down, says character Alexander Pierce, played by Robert Redford in a role that both echoes and inverts the ones he often took in the ’70s—where, in films such as All the President’s Men and Three Days of the Condor, he fought the system from within for good. This time Redford’s having fun as a bad guy, while Captain America (aka Steve Rogers) is the golden boy flirting with the audience and inviting us into his subversive politics (indeed the first words he speaks—the first words of the movie—are “on your left”).

So The Winter Soldier is striving for far more than your typical comic book movie and has been clearly influenced by the Dark Knighttrilogy in aiming for philosophical depth. There are interesting ideas here—S.H.I.E.L.D. being part of the problem and the character Winter Soldier’s name evoking the 1972 documentary Winter Soldier about Vietnam vets expressing regret. There are fun bits of business with Steve Rogers’ difficulties in adjusting to the contemporary world (such as the dawning reality that Star Wars andStar Trek are different things). And there’s real character development, especially in Rogers’ interactions with the Black Widow.

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New & Noteworthy

Everyday Saints
St. Peter’s B-List: Contemporary Poems Inspired by the Saints, edited by Mary Ann B. Miller, is not a collection of sentimental greeting-card-style verses; instead these literary works wrestle deeply with the human condition and the yearning for holiness, sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit. Ave Maria Press

City Missions
For nearly 30 years the Christian Community Development Association has been a resource for people seeking to do prophetic, non-paternalistic urban ministry. In Making Neighborhoods Whole: A Handbook for Christian Community Development, CCDA co-founders Wayne Gordon and John Perkins, and other veteran and emerging leaders, revisit key principles and lessons learned. IVP Books

A Narrative Ark
Noah’s Flood: Ancient Stories of Natural Cataclysmis a new website with essays, visual media, and conversation on Genesis, other ancient flood narratives, and the resonance of Noah’s story in contemporary culture and climate change. It was started by Ingrid Esther Lilly, a Pacific School of Religion visiting scholar. www.floodofnoah.com

God and Our Devices
Author, filmmaker, and cultural commentator Craig Detweiler explores the gifts and curses of our social media frenzy and teched-out society from a Christian perspective in iGods: How Technology Shapes Our Spiritual and Social Lives. Brazos Press

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Protest and Praise

IT IS FITTING that The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov (New Directions) begins with “Listening to Distant Guns,” written in 1940, when the poet was just 17: “The low pulsation in the east is war.”

The subject of war and its horrors, a constant in Levertov’s poetry and in her life, surfaces for the final time at the very end of this big book with these lines, written in 1997, from the poem “Thinking About Paul Celan”: You / at last could endure / no more. But we / live and live, / blithe in a world / where children kill children.

Denise Levertov (1923-1997), an American poet born in Ilford, England, to a Christian-Jewish father who was a descendant of Rabbi Schneur Zalman, founder of Chabad Hasidism, and a Welsh-Christian mother, herself the descendant of the Christian mystic Angell Jones of Mold, began to see her spiritual sensibility take a more formal religious shape only in her late 50s, when she opened to the liturgical, mystical, and social justice dimensions of Christianity, especially Catholicism, to which she later converted.

Two recent biographies, Dana Greene’s Denise Levertov: A Poet’s Lifeand Donna Krolik Hollenberg’s A Poet’s Revolution: The Life of Denise Levertov, explore deeply, albeit with inevitable overlap, the serial passions and enduring poetics of this singular artist.

At age 11, both biographers tell us, Levertov was going door to door peddling The Daily Worker in Ilford. At 12, she sent a batch of her poems to T.S. Eliot, and received back from him an encouraging response.

Poetry was her life’s purest passion. She had many lovers, many headlong, hurtful affairs to compensate for her romantically derailed and failed marriage to writer-activist Mitch Goodman. She also had a troubled relationship with their son, Nikolai, to whom Collected Poems is dedicated.

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The Price of Conscience

AS THE U.S. mobilized for World War I, a wave of patriotic fervor and xenophobia swept the country. Anything German was suspect, and those who were German-speaking and refused to fight against Germany were doubly suspect. Resentment and anger were directed at Anabaptist groups; several churches were burned and pastors beaten.

Inevitably, the demands of the state conflicted with the rights of conscience. Christian pacifists who only desired to be true to their beliefs by not serving in the military faced a militarized state that saw them as disloyal and disobedient. There was no legally recognized right to conscientious objection—if drafted, the only alternative for objectors was to go into the military and then refuse to participate.

Hutterite leaders had agreed that their young men would register, but if drafted and required to report for military service, their cooperation would end. They would refuse any orders making them complicit in war. Pacifists in Chains is the story of four young men—David, Michael, and Joseph Hofer, and Jacob Wipf—from the Hutterite colony in Alexandria, S.D., who faced that choice. Duane C.S. Stoltzfus, a professor at Goshen College in Indiana, was given access to previously unpublished letters from these men to their wives and families; the book is built around those letters.

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VIDEO: Host Your Own Agape Meal

In “Bringing the Word to Life” in the April 2014 issue, Sojourners senior associate editor Julie Polter reviews Creating a Scene in Corinth, by Reta Halteman Finger and George D. McClain. Combining cultural research with a dose of creative fun, the book leads church groups in simulations to explore the apostle Paul's letter to the church in Corinth.

To help you understand what a simulation from the book looks like, the staff at Sojourners hosted their own agape meal described in the book. This ancient church meal, or “supper of the Lord,” celebrates fellowship and the church.

Follow along with these simple steps outlined in the video to learn how to host your own agape meal.

Video credits: Rebecca Kraybill (director) and Ben Sutter (videographer and film editor)
Music: "Celtic Impulse" Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0

Rebecca Kraybill is the editorial assistant for Sojourners. Ben Sutter is the online assistant at Sojourners.

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New & Noteworthy

The Spirit’s Work
Just Jesus: My Struggle to Become Human, by Walter Wink with Steven Berry, is the final book by the late, influential Christian thinker. It blends brief autobiographical vignettes with essays on key themes in Wink’s work, offering insights into how his life story shaped his faith, thought, and witness. Image

Border Truths
On “Strangers No Longer”: Perspectives on the Historic U.S.-Mexican Catholic Bishops’ Pastoral Letter on Migration is a collection of essays by scholars and policy experts that uses the 2003 pastoral letter on immigration “Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope” as its starting point. Paulist Press

Joy and Power
The latest album by Beninese Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Angélique Kidjo, Eve, celebrates the strength and beauty of women. It is inspired by a women’s choir Kidjo heard while visiting Kenya as a UNICEF ambassador; several choirs from Benin and Kenya are featured on the album. 429 Records

Divine Feast
Spiritually hungry? O Taste and See: A Biblical Reflection on Experiencing God is an extended meditation on Psalm 34:8 by theologian and poet Bonnie Thurston that explores the rich nourishment and layers of meaning to be found in the words “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” Paraclete Press

 

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