Review

Brothers in Faith and Defiance

NO ORDINARY MEN: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi, Resisters Against Hitler in Church and State is a tightly woven story framed by the sophisticated historical analysis of its two authors, former senior Farrar, Straus, and Giroux editor Elisabeth Sifton (daughter of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr) and Columbia University professor emeritus Fritz Stern, a famed German scholar. The book profiles two brave young men—Bonhoeffer, a theologian and minister deeply involved in fighting the Nazis’ efforts to control the German Protestant churches, and Dohnanyi, a brilliant lawyer (son of Hungarian composer Ernst Dohnanyi) working in the German Ministry of Justice, who used his key position to methodically collect evidence against the Nazi regime.

Sifton and Stern portray Dohnanyi in detail as a leader in the small but high-powered German resistance movement. Brig. Gen. Hans Oster, a resistance member, hired Dohnanyi away from the Ministry of Justice ostensibly to help run the Abwehr, a German military intelligence organization that was also the center of the anti-Hitler resistance, in 1939. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was then recruited by Dohnanyi to be part of this team. Dohnanyi’s wife, Christine (Bonhoeffer’s sister), is also revealed as a significant influence on and aide to her husband.

The slim, 157-page volume is an important new historical work in the growing field of research on the German resistance movement during World War II. It is a penetrating look at Dohnanyi’s dangerous operations against the Nazis with historical perspective that other books on him and Bonhoeffer lack. Earlier biographies, written mainly by church people, more or less emphasized Bonheoffer as a singular hero fighting Hitler. Bonhoeffer was indeed very brave and traveled thousands of miles abroad while working as an agent for the Abwehr, but he was just one of a circle of resisters.

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Cowboys, Indians, and Reconciliation?

THE DOMINANT cultures of North America have long struggled to take responsibility for the suffering and injustice inflicted upon the Indigenous Peoples of the continent. The archetypal “us/them” story of cowboys and Indians remains at the core of North American national identities, from derogatory sports mascots and symbols such as the Washington “Redskins” and the “Chief Wahoo” character of the Cleveland Indians to the ignorant “redfacing” by non-Indigenous partygoers and trick-or-treaters in contrived Indian outfits. And this situation is nowhere near ending, despite many years of cultural sensitivity training and education.

Such overt racism should never be acceptable today. Yet it persists in regard to Indigenous Peoples. Why is this? As one friend remarked to me, most modern-day Americans believe injustices done to Indigenous Peoples to be a thing of the past.

But are they? Steve Heinrichs, director of Indigenous relations for the Mennonite Church in Canada, has brought together nearly 40 theologians, activists, writers, and poets—half of whom are Indigenous—to create Buffalo Shout, Salmon Cry: Conversations on Creation, Land Justice, and Life Together, a challenging anthology on Indigenous-Christian relations, stolen land, racism, and the impending environmental crisis that we all must face together.

Buffalo Shout, Salmon Cry isn’t easy reading. It’s a Jonah-like warning that should unsettle us and change our perspective. And that’s exactly what needs to happen. Its contributors offer a wide range of views, but agree on at least one thing: “the controlling culture is violently sick, devastating peoples and lands. The need is urgent: repent, resist, do something.”

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Missed Reckonings

THE MOST common image of the assassination of President Kennedy is embedded in the collective consciousness due to the fact that it was the subject of what may be the most-seen film in history, Abraham Zapruder’s 26-second home movie, grainy and garish in color and fact. The more recent eruption of reality television may have left us nearly unshockable, but a long, hard look at Zapruder’s short, hard film is still horrifying. The most provocative context in which I’ve seen the film located is Stephen Sondheim’s meaty musical Assassins. The Broadway production had Neil Patrick Harris as Lee Harvey Oswald with the film projected onto his white T-shirt. That the show took place at Studio 54 served to underline the demonic bargain at the intersection of the military-industrial-circus complex: The nightclub theater location satirized the fact that our stories about killing can either critique the cultural appetite for destruction or serve to perpetuate more of it as a form of entertainment.

If Assassins was the most provocative screen for the Zapruder film, the most politically complex is Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie JFK, now being rereleased to mark the assassination anniversary. It’s one of the greatest examples of cinematic craft applied to polemic (current examples are Captain Phillips and 12 Years a Slave)—edited like a dance, with a television miniseries’ worth of big name actors (Jack Lemmon, Sissy Spacek, Walter Matthau, Donald Sutherland, John Candy) in small roles holding up the edifice of big speechifying done by Kevin Costner and Tommy Lee Jones. It’s a thrilling film, and it has intellectual substance—the point is not whether or not the conspiracy theory posited in JFK is true, but that human beings “sin by silence” when we should speak.

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A Pilgrimage Not of Her Choosing

I CAN’T WRITE a completely unbiased, academic review of this book: Nora Gallagher is a friend, and I know the medical world that she must still navigate, and how wonderful it is when you arrive at the Mayo Clinic. This book is for anyone who plans to die one day and wants to live daily with purpose and with a real God. Those who are or have been physically ill will find a kindred soul in Gallagher, while the healthy will wonder how they will handle the sad, sympathetic gazes from others in the pew when their names are placed on the prayer list.

When she is 60, the vision in one of Gallagher’s eyes begins to fail. She limits the use of her one good eye for fear of losing sight in it too. Not so bad, you might think—except that as a writer, seeing is key to paying for the medical tests and travel she will endure for two years.

Of course all good patients become writers in a way. At first you take random notes in scattered notepads. Finally you redefine yourself as a full-time patient whose life demands documentation of every symptom and test in a little black book that becomes your constant companion. You have now entered what Gallagher calls Oz, the land of illness.

For Gallagher, Oz is strange. Oz is blurry. She is lonely. She is a patient not a person. Oz has many disrespectful, condescending doctors working in machine-like hospital systems that allow 10 minutes for a consult; they must get to the next patient, not solve the mystery of her now-painful, debilitating state.

In comparison, the Mayo Clinic, where Gallagher eventually goes, is Kansas. Mayo is set up to meet a patient’s needs first. There is art and music to calm the soul and mind. I commend to you her descriptions of the place, the people, and the entire thought process of being a Mayo patient. One teaser: There is rarely a line, because the doctors are waiting for her!

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Works of Economic Fiction

JAMES DOBSON and Kurt Bruner get three things right in their recent novels Fatherless and Childless: Euthanasia is wrong, married couples should make time to have hot sex, and stay-at-home moms should get some respect.

Pretty much everything else in the novels, the first two-thirds of a trilogy (book three, Godless, is due out in May 2014), is way off and internally incoherent. The plot starts in 2042, when an aging population and economic malaise have motivated the government to legalize euthanasia. Businessman Kevin Tolbert, recently elected to Congress, lectures his peers about the need to stop euthanasia and encourage parenthood in order to revive the economy. His wife Angie’s high school friend Julia Davidson, an allegedly progressive and feminist reporter, is assigned to write a story about him (lecture alert). Meanwhile Kevin and Angie struggle (with mercifully few lectures) with their third child’s diagnosis of Down syndrome. Subplots deal with a disabled teen and an elderly dementia victim who turn (or are pushed) to euthanasia.

Actual euthanasia, as disability-rights groups such as Not Dead Yet have documented, often turns on society defining “dignity” according to physical ability and health instead of the innate value of a human being. These novels, however, ask us to believe the main impetus for euthanasia would come from the drive to reduce the federal deficit, to deal with “swelling entitlement spending.”

What spending? The novels’ elderly and disabled characters are drawn or pushed toward euthanasia because of family financial troubles: There is no mention of any Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid help going to any of them.

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Faith and the Executioner

IN THE FOREWORD to Where Justice and Mercy Meet: Catholic Opposition to the Death Penalty, Sister Helen Prejean writes, “Welcome to the pages of this amazing book.” Her hospitable remark is not an exaggeration. I have written articles, taught classes, and spoken to church groups about capital punishment; in my judgment this book is the most accessible resource now available for engaging, informing, and perhaps even transforming how readers view the death penalty.

Where Justice and Mercy Meet was edited by death penalty activist Vicki Schieber, philosopher Trudy D. Conway, and theologian David Matzko McCarthy. The book is the product of two years of interdisciplinary courses, discussions, projects, and research—in sociology, political science, philosophy, economics, theater, ethics, and theology—at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md. While the book has a Catholic focus, it should be useful to Christians of all stripes and others interested in addressing this issue.

The volume is divided into four parts. Through skillful section and chapter introductions and segues, the editors have done a fine job of creating an integrated whole. Relevant questions for discussion and action tips make the book perfect for study groups in churches and for the university classroom.

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Making Once Enough

I RECENTLY saw a photograph of me taken on the day I was born: two weeks premature, swaddled, peaceful, vulnerable, beautiful—pure potential. I wanted to travel back in time to give the little guy some advice and protect him. Most of all I wanted him to experience the things I missed—those that only seem to come to our attention with the benefit of hindsight. I wanted him to take more risks for the good, not worry so much, be more open to receiving love, take more walks in fields and on beaches, and avoid a thousand mistakes. I wanted him to be different.

While wanting to undo history is probably a human universal, it can also be a kind of psychic violence, emerging from the notion that there is such a thing as the person we were “supposed” to be. Indulging this notion led to me projecting it onto three intriguing films. Short Term 12 is a lovely, painful story of recovery from childhood wounds. In Seconds, the newly restored melancholic science fiction tale of human engineering from 1966, Rock Hudson brilliantly imagines what happens when you convince yourself that superficiality is depth and exchange the life you have for cosmetic “transformation.”

Both touch on questions of how to live with what you have, and find their answer in About Time, the latest comedy from Richard Curtis, writer-director of Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love, Actually. It’s easy to resist Curtis’ films—the privilege that his characters inhabit is rarely acknowledged, and their speech patterns are so monochromatic as to suggest they’re all auditioning for an Aaron Sorkin project. (I loved The West Wing as much as the next person, but nobody really talks like that.)

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ICYMI: Brooklyn-Based Lucius' Vintage Pop Tunes Are A Must Listen

Photo by Peter Larson
Lucius' debut album, Wildewoman, was released earlier this month. Photo by Peter Larson

It seems rare these days to find an album where each song is valuable both individually and as part of the collective whole that makes up the record. Musicians are always telling us that they “don’t want to make just a few good singles with filler,” but few are able to fulfill those lofty intentions. Wilco did it on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, where the songs were different from themselves and anything Wilco had ever done in the past, and Animal Collective did it more recently on the 2009 album Merriweather Post Pavilion with the opposite approach: each song was unified by a cohesive and consistent sonic palette. Many point to Fleetwood Mac’s 11th studio album Rumours as another example, and there are surely others depending on one’s musical tastes.

But I think a newer, much lesser known group has entered that conversation, and they’ve done it on their first studio release, nonetheless. Brooklyn-based Lucius have managed to craft an album with diverse songs, catchy hooks, and really powerful vocals and harmonies stick in your head for days. There isn’t a song on their debut, Wildewoman, I want to skip through. Bob Boilen of NPR’s ‘All Songs Considered’ perhaps says it best when describing their EP: “If it were possible to wear out a digital file, then my copy of Lucius' self-titled 2012 EP would now be scattered digital bits.”

Noah and the Whale: Simple but Delightful Rock n' Roll

Photo Courtesy of Noah and the Whale
Check out Noah and the Whale's latest album, 'Heart of Nowhere.' Photo Courtesy of Noah and the Whale

 “I’ve always believed that there’s an amazing number of things you can do through a rock ‘n’ roll song,” Lou Reed, who just this past week passed away, once told the journalist Kristine McKenna.

English band Noah and the Whale take that observation and run with it. I had the opportunity of seeing the band live last week, and the show — and their sound — was simple, as nearly every rock song is, yet cathartic and delightful. It mixes elements of Reed and his sixties and seventies peers with Springsteen and sprinkles on touches of indie-folk that’s flourished over the last decade. And the results are marvelous.

Spiritual Cultivation

SOIL AND SACRAMENT is Fred Bahnson’s story of finding God through sustainable farming. A trained theologian, he learns to best live out his faith with shovel in hand, practicing a method of permanent agricultural design principles called “permaculture.”

We follow him through the liturgical year on an agrarian pilgrimage from one faith community to another, digging into the big question of how to best love his neighbor. His answers are uncovered through building relationships and healthier soil, communing with others and his Creator in the field. From jail cell to monastic cell, from a rooftop in Chiapas to his four-season greenhouse, Bahnson finds the intersection of community and solitude between the field rows. Just like the first Adam from the adamah (earth), we learn how to give more to the soil than we take away and to reverently observe the garden as fruitful and multiplying. “Human from humus”—he had me at hugelkultur. (Look it up—it’s really cool.)

Bahnson begins his pilgrimage in a Trappist monastery in South Carolina during Advent, joining the brothers in prayer and mushroom-growing practices, entering the dark cold winter silence of vigils and the soil. Bahnson then flashes back to 2001, to Holy Week in Chiapas with a Christian Peacemaker Team accompanying the Mayan Christian pacifist civic group Las Abejas—“The Bees.” In Chiapas we sit and eat with Bahnson on Maundy Thursday, corn tortillas and slow-cooked black beans made into holy elements, partaking of an “ancient and unnamed liturgy,” eating our way into mystery. Bahson ordains the creatures of the earth as perennial ministers of the soil, notes the transubstantiation of seed and potluck as Eucharist. He writes of beginning to think of growing food as the embodiment of loving his neighbors, the journey of the liturgical calendar through the mystery of soil. The book is a slow dance, a cosmic one-turn around the sun.

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