Sacred

The Violence at Charlie Hebdo: A Sacred Tragedy

"In memoriam Charlie Hebdo." Image courtesy Emeline Broussard/Flickr.
"In memoriam Charlie Hebdo." Image courtesy Emeline Broussard/Flickr.

What is the sacred? The sacred has been around since the beginning of human history and, according the great French thinker René Girard, it is the reason humanity has a history at all. Girard defines the sacred in a way that encompasses archaic sacrificial religions and diagnoses modern violence. He contends that the sacred is any belief that creates identity and cohesion within a group over and against outsiders. In others words, the sacred protects a community from its own violence by designating the proper enemies one can hate, ridicule, satirize and kill without remorse. Indeed, to do so is a sacred duty. By hating and killing others, we strengthen our love for members of our own group. If you recognize this as what we now call scapegoating, you are correct.

Anderson Creates Sacred Cinematic Space in 'Grand Budapest Hotel'

Director Wes Anderson (left) chats with Jude Law (Young Author) on the set of "Grand Budapest Hotel."

To my mind, all of Wes Anderson’s films are masterpieces in the truest sense of that word. But his most recent creation, Grand Budapest Hotel, is, perhaps, his chef d’oeuvre.

Anderson’s eighth feature-length film, which opened in limited release last week, Grand Budapest Hotel is a whimsical, hilarious, and surprisingly touching tale laden with nostalgia for a world and way of life most of us (including the 44-year-old director himself) never have experienced.

Set in the fictional Eastern European mountain region known as the “Republic of Zubrowka,” the plot centers around the character and adventures of Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), the concierge of the eponymous Grand Budapest Hotel, one of Europe’s palatial “grand hotels. Gustave is something of a dandy, a throwback to a bygone era even in his heyday of the 1930s on the cusp of World War II.

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'A Sower Went Out to Sow'

“WE WANT FARMERS to rediscover the sacredness of farming,” says Rev. Daniel Premkumar. Premkumar’s respect for farmers and farming grew from his experience of serving for nearly 40 years as a Lutheran parish priest in Andhra Pradesh, the “rice bowl” of India. “We have forgotten that the people who grow our food play a critical role in the care of creation,” he says. “That is why we are creating a farmers’ Bible.”

We sat in his office at the Synod of the Church of South India, the largest Protestant church in the country, in Chennai. The church includes 10,000 Protestant congregations (Presbyterian, Congregational, Reformed, Anglican, and Methodist) across South India. Rev. Premkumar is now director of diaconal concerns for the church, and he is advancing the concept of agri-ministry, which views agriculture as a form of ministry and upholds the need for church ministry to directly address the concerns of farmers. He created the Agricultural Workers Fellowship (AWF) in 2011. A small AWF workshop where theologians and farmers came together to discuss agricultural perspectives on biblical passages led to the idea of a book offering a reading of the Bible from the farmers’ perspective. They hope this book and a farm workers’ devotional guide will be finished by 2014.

The initiative to spur the church to explicitly integrate faith and agriculture comes at a time when food and farming in India—and globally—is at a critical juncture. Will India follow the United States in relying on genetically modified crops, monoculture, inorganic and unsustainable farming practices, and the corporatization of agriculture? Or will it restore farming as a livelihood, emphasizing safe food and healthy soil and water?

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The Great American Water Crisis

Corporate raider T. Boone Pickens made billions as a Texas oil baron, but he’s betting that the real money will come from mining “blue gold”—water. Pickens owns more water than anyone in the U.S.—he’s already bought up the rights to drain 65 billion gallons a year from the Ogallala Aquifer, which holds the groundwater for much of the Great Plains. Almost all the Ogallala water—95 percent—is used for agriculture, but Pickens plans to pipe it down to Dallas, cashing in on the hotter-and-drier weather from climate change. (The result, according to an Agriculture Department spokesperson: “The Ogallala supply is going to run out and the Plains will become uneconomical to farm.”)

Pickens isn’t alone in his new role as a water baron. Multinationals such as Nestlé are buying up water rights, siphoning lakes, and selling our most precious resource to the highest bidder. Slick advertising has seduced many Americans into the mistaken belief that (expensive) bottled water is “purer” or “healthier” than tap water—and led to the annual consumption of 9.67 billion gallons of bottled water, with underserved Latinos and African Americans having the highest rates of bottled water use. And the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development warns that by 2030 nearly half of the world’s population will inhabit areas with severe water stress.

As our authors explain, cities and towns across the country are in the midst of an epic fight to keep water as a public trust. Communities of faith have joined what they see as a battle for basic justice: Protecting the right of everyone, rich and poor alike, to the crucial stuff of life, water. —The Editors

THE UNITED STATES has one of the best public water supply systems in the world.

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To Have and to Hold (and to Serve Six)

By Ken Davis

JUNE IS A special month, particularly for families celebrating ... uhm ... something. I forget. Fortunately, ever since I read a study suggesting that cholesterol-lowering statins can cause problems with ... with ... word retrieval, I realize now it has nothing to do with getting old, which many people my age are getting these days. It’s because I’m just another victim of an unscrupulous drug industry. (Drug company lawyer: “I understand that you think you took our drug, sir, but how can you be sure?”)

But now I remember why June is special: Our oldest daughter is getting married this month, and I can use our cover story as a reminder that I’m probably supposed to do something to help out. Although darned if I can remember what it is.

My daughter’s won’t be a gay marriage, which is trending this year, but it will be an alternative wedding, one of those nontraditional celebrations that doesn’t require me to dress up and “give away” the bride. (If I was going to give her away, I should have done it well before the wedding bills started coming in.) There’ll be no church to rent and no preacher to pay. The ceremony will be outside, probably in a tent, and we already have one of those. (It sleeps four. Nice size for an intimate gathering, if people don’t mind stooping during the service.)

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Pursuing Grace, Onstage and Off

LAUGHTER IS Sacred Space: The Not-So-Typical Journey of a Mennonite Actor has the narrative arc of a classic Greek tragedy: Boy from religious sect grows up, becomes a butcher, goes to seminary, then finds acting acclaim as part of a duo (Ted & Lee), only to have his comedic partner die by suicide, after which the show must go on and does.

Ted Swartz’s story is a bittersweet tale, with emphasis on the sweet. It is told in the structure of a five-act play. What originally drew me was the fact that Swartz’s late acting partner, Lee Eshleman, was a classmate of mine at Eastern Mennonite University, where we were art majors to-gether. Eshleman was easily the most talented among us. (His line drawings illustrate the book.) He was also smart, funny, and regal.

After I left EMU, unmarried and pregnant, I would sometimes see Eshleman’s name on the masthead of the alumni magazine and think, “I wish I had it as together as Lee does.” It was a shock to hear that, like my own son, Eshleman too had died by suicide.

His death and its impact on Swartz take up a good deal of space in this memoir. The duo worked together for 20 years, and Swartz is honest about the ups and downs of their friendship. He does a great job of communicating that Eshleman was much more than his suicide or his bipolar disorder. He was that extraordinary person I remember.

As important as the message is of surviving a loved one’s suicide, there’s much more to Swartz’s book. It is the candid journey of an artist, one that affirms both the calling and challenges of being an artist in a religious context.

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Smell. Sip. Sacrament.

Coffee ceremony at a restaurant in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Coffee ceremony at a restaurant in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Photo by Cathleen Falsani.

Back home in California, we recently purchased one of those one-cup-at-a-time Kuerig coffee makers after running through two high-end traditional coffee machines in 18 months. (Two writers in one house equals a high rate of coffee consumption.) While I think it was the proper choice for us – we waste less coffee this way, and have bought one of those reusable pods so that we’re not always using recyclable-but-still-plastic-and-not-terribly-ethical disposable pods pre-filled with the coffee of our choice.

I brought home a pound or so of ground coffee from Ethiopia and we’ve tried to get the amount of grounds and water pressure just right to replicate the drink I’d had in Africa.

Nothing doing.

Ethiopian coffee ceremony a la Keurig is too fast, too easy, and much too weak in myriad ways. 

In coffee ceremonies back in Africa, the beans were ground by hand with a mortar and pestle. They’d be uneven. Chunky. When steeped, the coffee needed to be sieved over and over to make the final product perfectly potable. It took time, patience, and a practiced hand. It also required a different kind of regard for the act itself: the woman preparing the coffee wasn't simply making a drink. She was presiding over something humble and holy.

Even if I could replicate the grounds (I do have a Le Creuset mortar and pestle that mostly serves as decoration on my kitchen window sill), and sieved the elixir until it was just right, it still wouldn’t be.

Why? No frankincense and all the sacred intention that comes with it.

The Lower Lights — "A Hymn Revival Vol. II"

Break out the tambourines and rise up singing! A hymn revival is happening … again.

This month, The Lower Lights continue to shine as they release a second stand-out collection of hymns, aptly titled, “A Hymn Revival II.” And this time around, the group of 20+ musicians expands their repertoire outside of the “American Protestant” catalog, and into the wider collection of folk music, including country classics like Hank Williams’ “I Saw the Light” and “Calling You,” the African-American spiritual “Go Down Moses,” and the familiar Irish hymn “Be Thou My Vision.”  

Each of the 16 tracks on “A Hymn Revival Vol. II,” glow with intention. Whether it’s the soft but steady pulse of the song “Nearer My God to Thee,” or the call-and-response elicited from snappy chorus of “In the Sweet By and By,” The Lower Lights’ sophomore album presents another authentic look at the joy of the Christian life found in community and comradery, all propelled by the sacred art of making music.

The Sacred Fish

You can’t desire to catch the sacred fish
as much as he desires to be caught
& yet
he darts through the dim depths
with tail swerve & swish
laughs with the joy of glistening fins
at huge holes in your net
through which he swims

To get the shining coin from his mouth
is worth selling all you have
To get him         even better
Everything you know about him
wavers in uneven light

Just below the surface
so it’s barely wet
you let down your net
as he dives to the bottom
You seek the depths
as he leaps through waves
You search the shallows
as he heads for open water
& your tattered nets come up empty

If you let him
he’ll repair them himself
trim knotted clumps     & untie tangles
Selecting the right fibers
he’ll tear & twist
the sinews of your heart into fine mesh
stretch them as thin as a pin
as wide as your whole being
a needle-shimmer piercing your soul

Better is one day in his boats
than thousands elsewhere

D.S. Martin, a Canadian poet living in Ontario, is author of Poiema and So The Moon Would Not Be Swallowed.

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Songs for the Lenten Journey

Music to aide contemplation as we head into the fifth week of Lent and Holy Week…

I discovered Songs for Lent last year on Noise Trade – the site that trades music for promotion, and maybe a small donation — and I think it’s one of the most spiritually moving and challenging albums of the “Christian music” genre, at least that I’ve encountered. 

There’s something earthy and beautiful about Songs for Lent that elicits a response I believe is lost in contemporary Christian music. It’s raw, simple, transcendent.

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