Culture Watch

Young Women Rising

FOR NON-WHITES born in post-apartheid South Africa, the country promised equal rights and legal freedom. But the first generation of “born frees,” as they are called, also entered a world where HIV/AIDS was destroying their families and communities. Many children and teens were left largely fending for themselves in townships plagued by poverty, disease, and violence.

Author Kimberly Burge, a Sojourners contributing writer, entered this world not as an aid or social worker, but rather on a Fulbright scholarship, to form a writing group for adolescent girls in the township of Gugulethu. Too old for the child-centered programs and too young for adult assistance, the girls were falling through the cracks of established programs. The writing club offered them the opportunity to creatively express their fears, frustrations, and dreams.

To Burge’s credit, the book is not primarily about her or her experiences. She keeps the focus on the girls themselves and the often breathtaking words and thoughts they express in their writing. Burge is not there to rescue them, but rather to help them find their voices. She acts less as a teacher than a peer, encouraging girls to lead the group themselves and prompting them to write about such topics as “I wish I could ...” or “I need to find a place ...”

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Devils We Know

Joan Marcus/Stagezine

THE DEVIL HAS long been wildly popular on stage, dating back to the Middle Ages when church authorities routinely cancelled performances because they worried that representations of the devil were so deliciously tempting that weak believers might falter. The dualistic image of a good, sweet angel on one shoulder and dirty demon on the other has infiltrated popular culture from children’s cartoons to adult sitcoms, signifying the struggle of our tempted conscience. And the devil always has the better jokes. In literary works, such as Paradise Lost and Doctor Faustus, the devil’s presence has driven plots forward through acts of temptation, leading the protagonist into some lusty or murderous act. The cliché is brought to life: “The devil made me do it.”

In 2015, the devil makes a serious comeback on Broadway in a successful run of Robert Askins’ new play, Hand to God, nominated for five Tony Awards, including best play and best direction. Askins takes his audience on a different kind of devilish journey.

In the basement Sunday school room of a Lutheran church in contemporary Texas, we meet a woman named Margery, who is experiencing profound grief after the recent death of her husband. She tries her best to move forward, filling her life to the brim with religious activity, starting a teen puppet ministry in the church and teaching the youth group to make puppets that will sing songs and tell Bible stories. Her son, Jason, a student in this fledgling class, has created a hand puppet named Tyrone who seems fairly ordinary, harmless, and cute. Jason is a good puppeteer, gifted, in fact. We see his talent unfold as he tries to impress Jessica, a girl in the youth group, with an artful rendition of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” routine.

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July 2015
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Hell and the Modern Pastor

The Christians

The Christians

“Make us one,
Make us one body,
Because when we are one body,
We see something we cannot see
By ourselves ...
In the name and in the blood of Jesus,
Amen”

SO OPENS LUCAS HNATH’S PLAY The Christians, which premiered at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in 2014 and at Playwrights Horizons Off-Broadway in 2015. The play is described as a “kind of sermon,” sometimes literal, sometimes figurative. The Christians marks a distinct turning point in the history of American theater, in that its evangelical main character’s struggle with ideas is treated as a serious subject that reflects on a nation’s moral dilemma.

Religious themes are hardly a new topic for U.S. theater, but most often they’ve been treated negatively. Arthur Miller’s plays, such as The Crucible and After the Fall, treat religion as an institution of animosity, even a kind of antagonist. Tennessee Williams uses religion as a quaint and antiquated emblem of Southern culture—such as in The Glass Menagerie, where the character Amanda says, with exaggerated sympathy, “You’re a Christian martyr.” Then there’s Inherit the Wind, by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, a dramatic treatment of the Scopes Monkey Trial that depicts Christians as hostile and uneducated. If the American theater were an accurate mimesis of American truth, Christians would be lying, narcissistic, two-faced, McCarthyist bigots.

The Christians is a completely different story, in which the dramatic action depicts a loving, thoughtful pastor as the protagonist up against the institution of the church. Each character is treated with due reverence and given a fair argument, so that there are no easy answers, and the audience is left grappling with the central struggle. The play is reminiscent of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People (a quote from this play is The Christians epigraph), where a citizen who tells the truth faces the wrath of a village that turns on him. Both plays explore deep ethical issues as the central characters risk their reputations and their livelihoods through standing by their principles.

The first scene of Hnath’s powerful drama is a contemporary church service, highlighted by PowerPoint slides, with a sermon based on Isaiah 30:12-13: “Because you have rejected this word and relied on oppression and depended on deceit, this sin will become for you like a high wall, cracked and bulging, whose collapse comes suddenly in an instant.”

The sermon is delivered by the energetic and youthful Pastor Paul at an evangelical megachurch that could be anywhere in the United States. He goes on to describe what he views as the crack in his church’s foundation, delivered with the smooth tones of a master orator who has always won the favor of the congregation. He tells a story he heard at a pastor’s conference about a boy, in a country ravaged by violence, who rushes into a burning building to save a little girl and dies from his burns. Pastor Paul is tortured by this story, told to him by a missionary who mourns for the boy saying, “What a shame, I didn’t save this boy for Christ ... what a shame I didn’t save this boy from hell.”

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Can You Hear It?

Kendrick Lamar

Kendrick Lamar

JUSTICE-CONSCIOUS clergy and theologians have been drawn to the Black Lives Matter movement by resonating eschatological beliefs and prophetic ethics. However, movement motivations differ for many of the millennial activist leaders whose ethical sensibilities and theological worldview are not framed necessarily by doctrinal faith, ecclesiology, or trust in the church as an arbiter of God’s right and wrong.

Instead these millennial activists, unlike the boomers allied with them, relate to ethical messages found in popular cultural streams of hip-hop and spoken word that voice this generation’s pervasive questioning about theodicy—the presence of good and evil—in the world. These lyrical works articulate a generational critique of lived experiences that warrant further ethical and theological analysis. The challenge for the church and its faith leaders is: Do we listen?

In a Sojo.net post last August, I noted that the 2015 anthem chant “Hell You Talmbout,” by Janelle Monáe and Wondaland, voiced an ethical polemic on prevalent state-sanctioned practices of extrajudicial injustice. The chanted names of those killed serve to demand their remembrance as persons. As a rallying cry across the nation, the call-and-response lyrics convey a hymnody challenging the anonymity of invisibility.

Similarly, rap artist Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 song “Alright” was rapidly adopted in the Black Lives Matter movement as a counterhegemonic anthem that pushed against police violence with a first-person examination of mortality on the margins.

Lamar’s lyrical messaging in “Alright” linked cultural expression with socio-theological meaning to craft a survival ethic. Intentional use of the N-word sears the embedded consciousness of an older generation for whom the term is historically tied to the evils of slavocracy and Jim Crow segregation. However, Lamar intentionally turns to the signifying trope and demoralizing images that cast “othered” black and brown bodies into racially pejorative stereotypes. In the present millennial context, the N-word is used as a catchphrase of familiarity among peers but is also acknowledged as a pejorative used by police to identify or label black bodies—as many audio-visual recordings of incidents attest—while extrajudicial methods are physically applied. Use of repetitive lyrics in “Alright” amplifies an epistemological and ethical conundrum about systematized oppression. But do we listen?

Wouldn’t you know—we been hurt, been down before
N----, when our pride was low, lookin’ at the world like, “Where do we go?”
N----, and we hate po-po; wanna kill us dead in the street fo sho
N----, I’m at the preacher’s door
My knees gettin’ weak, and my gun might blow
But we gon’ be alright

The images in the video for “Alright” expose, with satirical irony and stark reality, that lived experiences in neighborhoods on the brink of ghettoized existence are linked to systemic control by powerful, privileged forces. Lamar’s juxtaposition of a bodily spirit in flight creates tension between the evils of oppression and a spiritual will to survive. This theoethical tension is captured when a voiced recognition of the “evils of Lucy” (Lucifer) all around is jolted into silence when a uniformed figure fires a single gunshot that sends Lamar’s black body careening off the high perch of a street light.

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The Hide-and-Seek of Faith

"Where am I? Who am I? Why am I?" / William Kurelek

"Where am I? Who am I? Why am I?" / William Kurelek 

CANADIAN ARTIST William Kurelek was influenced both by his experiences with mental illness and his conversion to Catholicism. He would eventually be considered psychiatrically recovered, but he was institutionalized as a young man in the mid-’50s, during which he created one of his best known early paintings, showing a blind man wandering in a desert, captioned “Where am I? Who am I? Why am I?”

These are foundational questions for all of us, not just a gifted artist in a time of suffering. The institutional church tends to assert that the answers to such questions are, if not simple, at least imminently knowable: Just pull up a pew and stay awhile. Many of us who are already believers come to assume that our job is to have a spiritual GPS always on, ready to point others in the “right” direction.

But of course, finding God or our place in the universe has rarely been that easy. Church may or may not be the place where we who are lost are found. The person we’ve always claimed to be may be shattered by unexpected events or discoveries. Or theologies that we once took for granted may come to ring hollow. As Diana Butler Bass writes in her new book, Grounded: Finding God in the World, “millions of people are navigating the space between the secular world and conventional theism. They are making a path between the two that nevertheless embraces both, finding a God who is a ‘gracious mystery, ever greater, ever nearer’ through a new awareness of the earth and in the lives of their neighbors.”

Several other very distinct books released this year wrestle with the shape of faith, finding or naming God, and how secrets revealed can shift our self-understanding and shake even our deepest beliefs.

In her best-selling 2013 spiritual memoir, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint, Nadia Bolz-Weber described her journey from fundamentalist childhood to alcoholic rebel to believer with a priestly call. A tattooed, weight-lifting former standup comedian who is now a Lutheran (ELCA) pastor, Bolz-Weber helped found House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, which combines ancient liturgy and theological orthodoxy with artistic expression, social justice, and radical inclusion.

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The Living and the Unforgotten

TUVIA RUEBNER HAS earned the lament he wrote for King David, Israel’s better-known sorrow bearer. The poet came into the world 91 years ago in Pressburg-Bratislava, Slovakia, under Nazism’s shadow. It is a shadow he managed to separate himself from physically, but which sticks to him philosophically and is at the core of his poetry. The parched sound of random loss is the root sound in many of his poems. The spawn of an unimaginable yesterday, Tuvia Ruebner is more than anything a poet of today.

His parents, his grandparents, and his little sister Litzi all perished at Auschwitz in 1942, a year after he immigrated to British Mandate Palestine. Forty years after their deaths, Ruebner’s first son, Moran, was sent to fight in Israel’s first Lebanese war. Moran left for South America the following year, estranged from his country and its wars, and after a few letters, was never heard from again.

In Ruebner’s poem “[My father was murdered],” one by one he enumerates his losses:

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Real Life, With Superpowers

Ms. Marvel

I REMEMBER THE FIRST TIME someone told me I couldn’t do something because I was a girl. I was in preschool, preparing for an epic game of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with a group of boys. I was playing April O’Neil, the Turtles’ journalist ally. As we started our game of pretend, my teacher came over to ask what we were doing.

“Playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” I responded.

“Oh, you shouldn’t be playing that.”

“But I’m April,” I explained. “I’m a girl.”

“No, girls don’t play games like that,” she told me, and directed me toward the finger paints.

Whatever my teacher’s intentions, the damage was done. From that day on, superheroes and all things related were a “boy thing.” That meant the X-Men, Batman, Superman, and, yes, Donatello and his human-reptile hybrid team were all off-limits. I eventually grew to love comics as a teenager and an adult, but I was aware that they rarely featured anyone other than white men (or, occasionally, heavily objectified women) as the heroes.

Thank goodness for Kamala Khan.

Kamala is the teenage protagonist of Marvel Comics’ rebooted Ms. Marvel series. She’s a clever, funny 16-year-old living in Jersey City, N.J., who, in addition to having superpowers, writes superhero fan fiction, plays video games, and struggles with parent-enforced curfews. She also happens to be the second-generation daughter of Pakistani immigrants and a practicing Muslim.

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New and Noteworthy

Old New Soul
Leon Bridges is a 25-year-old gospel and soul singer from Texas with a vintage sound and sheepish stage presence. In six months, Bridges went from washing dishes full-time to selling out multiple SXSW shows. His new album, Coming Home, features smooth love songs, both romantic and religious. Columbia

A Feminist Gospel
In A New Gospel for Women, Kristin Kobes Du Mez tells the story of Katharine Bushnell (1855-1946), a theologian and women’s rights activist who fought the patriarchal distortion of Christianity. Du Mez connects this to ongoing struggles to create an evangelical Christian feminist ethic full of both “grace and liberation.” Oxford

The Cross and China
If current trends continue, by 2030 there could be more Christians in China than in any other country. In A Star in the East: The Rise of Christianity in China, Rodney Stark and Xiuhua Wang use surveys and field experiences to explore this surprising growth and its potential effects. Templeton Press

Love Story
The Light of the World is poet Elizabeth Alexander’s memoir of the love and unexpected loss of her artist husband. A deep, luscious meditation on family, grief, art, and love at first sight: “Lightning struck and did not curdle the cream but instead turned it to sweet, silken butter.” Grand Central

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July 2015
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Faith's Power and Variety

JEFF SHARLET, author of nonfiction books about faith including New York Times best-seller The Family and Sweet Heaven When I Die, isn’t so much interested in religion as he is in belief. “That interest sometimes leads me to people who might reject the term religion altogether,” he writes of drinking whiskey with Mormons and marching in Spain with Jewish-American veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, a volunteer group of up to 40,000 men and women from 52 countries who traveled to fight fascism in the Spanish Civil War.

In his newest book, Radiant Truths, Sharlet collects stories like these, stories about what happens when religious ideas meet social practice. He attributes this concept to anthropologist Angela Zito. In her essay “Religion is Media,” Zito ponders, “What does the term ‘religion,’ when actually used by people, out loud, authorizein the production of social life?” Using Zito’s question as a jumping off point, Sharlet dives into 150 years’ worth of literary journalism at the intersection of religion, culture, and politics.

He admits his own bias; as with most anthologies, his selections are personal favorites, and not wholly representative of the nation’s religious pluralism. Sharlet also explains each selection in a short interlude between pieces, a helpful cohesion if, like me, you read the book from front to back. Journeying from a 19th century Purim to a 20th century healing ceremony conducted by a traditional Laotian Hmong shaman is an exhilarating adventure, but one that requires a chaperone.

The anthology begins in 1863 with Walt Whitman, moving through the end of the 1800s with writing by Thoreau and Twain. The 20th century opens with a fierce female duo, Sara Jeannette Duncan and Jane Addams, writing about historic Hull House. By the middle of the last century, we’ve met boy preacher James Baldwin and been introduced to Louisiana voodoo by Zora Neale Hurston.

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July 2015
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