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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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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Tell Me Why

I’M IN THAT cohort of earnest, educated, now-middle-aged North Americans who fell in love with Dave Eggers’ sprawling, sometimes unapologetically self-indulgent memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. All my life I had lived with an ongoing inner monologue of exaggerated self-consciousness, but I’d never read anyone who could articulate the experience as precisely, never mind playfully, as Eggers.

Eggers could have made a fortune repeating the same entertaining self-indulgence, but he’s shaped his career into anything but navel-gazing. He’s formed writing workshops for kids; started two long-running magazines; cofounded an oral history book series on human rights crises; and written a string of beautiful, compassionate books of fiction and nonfiction with an unmistakably critical eye.

In his latest novel—Your Fathers, Where Are They? And The Prophets, Do They Live Forever?—Eggers uses a dialogue-only form to tell a compact story that thunders with probity and timeless, existential urgency. The main character, Thomas, a middle-aged man with psychological issues, has conversations with six different kidnap victims—an astronaut, a former member of Congress and Vietnam vet, his high-school teacher, his mother, a policeman, and a woman he meets during walks on the beach—holding them on an abandoned military base on the California coast. He doesn’t physically harm any of them; he just wants to know where everything went wrong. Why do our friends die? Why do our career dreams come to naught? Why do the mythical promises of science, democracy, education, nationalism, law, progress, and even love fail to deliver?

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July 2015
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God of the Fugitives

CHRIS HOKE’S Wanted isn’t a spiritual memoir in the sense of chronicling revelation over time, and while Hoke, as his own character, grows through the book, he isn’t tracking the movements of his own soul. Wanted recounts the moments in Hoke’s life as a pastor and friend to prisoners, migrant workers, and gang members when something else broke in. Whether or not it intends to, Wanted is a way of answering the question that plagues a lot of contemporary spiritual writing: What does spiritual mean, anyway? Outside the religious patterns we already know, how would we recognize it?

Hoke goes looking, and finds himself drawn to a jail in Washington’s Skagit Valley as an unofficial chaplain, leading Bible studies and hanging out with the men who soon request his visits. Many of them listen to the stories where Jesus dines with the people society rejected and ask if that could mean them too.

By hanging out in the margins of U.S. society, Wanted can’t avoid the question of how these men got there in the first place. It’s outside the purview of the book to fully take on the issue of mass incarceration in the United States, but in the stories there is ample evidence of ways in which our system is heartbreaking and often inhumane. To learn even the elementary details of these men’s lives is to see that nearly everyone has failed them. The alternative, a God who wants them, is Hoke’s theme, and part of his title’s double meaning. Such a God accompanies people to the ends of their shadows—to the fields where they hide from the police, into the houses they break into, to the horror of solitary confinement.

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July 2015
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The Ultimate Threat

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON asks what happens when you give a computer the ability to think for itself. To which we could add, what happens when you make a science fiction film that assumes the audience can think for itself?

Sadly, in the case of Age of Ultron, writer-director Joss Whedon’s serious attempt to make a smart blockbuster collides with corporate cookie-cutting and the belief that stockings are best overstuffed, even if what’s in them is just cotton wool or dead weight. Too much is going on, and not all of it is good. Thor, the Hulk, Iron Man, Black Widow, and the other guy with the arrows are still looking for a magical object, but when they find it we’re none the wiser about what it’s for. Bad guys still threaten the safety of the world, and the Avengers still think that only maximum force can secure a result.

So Tony Stark builds Ultron, a supercomputer with a body—the super-est of supercomputers, to be sure—whose job will be to “protect the earth” and end violence. I think. I’m not being snarky—the film is so overpaced that it mostly misses the opportunity to nurture plot points or emotional beats.

One exception is a funny sequence in which the team tries to lift Thor’s hammer, revealing their personalities in a competition between alpha (and omega) males—and Scarlett Johansson. Here Whedon (witty, politically intelligent) gets to be Whedon, and it’s clear that there was a more interesting movie intended behind, and even trying to break free from, this one.

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July 2015
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Rock-and-Roll Transcendence

THE CLUB WAS full by the time New Jersey’s The Gaslight Anthem took the stage. Lead singer and songwriter Brian Fallon stepped to the mike in denim jacket and jeans, and the band lit into their song “Howl” (yes, a Ginsberg reference). That’s when I heard a strange doubling sound on Fallon’s vocal. The Gaslight Anthem is very much straight-ahead, meat-and-potatoes, guitars-and-drums. Why would they use that weird effect on the vocal?

Then it hit me. That sound wasn’t coming from the sound board or the speakers, but from us. The audience, en masse, was singing along with every word, on time and in tune. It was what happens when rock and roll is working right: The performers and the audience become one and are swept up into something much larger than themselves.

I’ve also experienced this in churches and sometimes even in collective political action. But some of my most dramatic moments of transcendence have come like this: in a dark room, packed with sweaty people, screaming back at some guy onstage with a guitar. The experience is even more interesting when you know that the guy with the guitar, Fallon, is also a Christian, who knows the true name of the Spirit that has overtaken us.

I only caught this show because my 15-year-old son, Joseph, took advantage of his spring break to insist that he be driven an hour each way, on a Monday night, to see one of his favorite bands. But it didn’t take much arm-twisting either. One of the last of the great guitar-rock bands, Gaslight is firmly rooted in the punk-rock ethos, but its sound has broadened to include elements of R&B and mainstream arena rock. And Fallon’s lyrical references range across the rock-and-roll tradition, from Hank Williams to Sam Cooke and Otis Redding to Elvis Costello and The Counting Crows.

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July 2015
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