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Culture Watch

Songs of Ourselves: Grief, Hope, and Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan Stevens’ newest album, Carrie & Lowell (out now), is a heartbreaking meditation on personal grief. It’s also joyful, baffling, and delicately mundane. 

In the spirit of a listening party, a few of us sat down to play through the album, sharing liner notes and meditations on the songs that grabbed each of us. Conclusion: it's really, really good. Stream Carrie & Lowell here, and listen along with us below.

 

Death With Dignity” — Tripp Hudgins, ethnomusicologist, Sojourners contributor, blogger at Anglobaptist

Tripp: I love the first song of an album. I think of it as the introduction to a possible new friend. “Where The Streets Have No Name” on U2’s Joshua Tree or “Signs of Life” on Pink Floyd’s Momentary Lapse of Reason, that first track can be the thesis statement to a sonic essay.

So, when I get a new album — even in this day of digital albums or collections of singles — a first track can make or break an album for me. I sat down and listened attentively to “Death With Dignity.” It does not disappoint. With it Stevens introduces the subject of the album — his grief around troubled relationship with his mother and her death — as well as the sonic palate he will use throughout the album.

Simple guitar work, layered voicing, and a little synth, the album is musically sparse. The tempo reminds me of movies from the nineteen sixties or seventies where the action takes place over a long road trip.

Catherine Woodiwiss: I was thinking road trip, too. There’s real motion musically, which, given a claustrophobic theme and circular lyrics, is a thankful point of release. It’s a generous act, or maybe an avoidant one — he could have made us sit tight and watch, and he doesn’t quite do it.

Julie Polter: This isn’t a road movie, but the reference to that era of films just made me think of Cat Stevens’ soundtrack for Harold and Maude, especially “Trouble.” (This album is one-by-one bringing back to me other gentle songs of death and duress and all the songs I listen to when I want to cry).

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'The Mask You Live In': A Blessed Mess

From impossible standards of beauty generated by the fashion and make-up industry to the disproportionate number of women who are elected to political office, women and girls in America face a variety of obstacles in their journey of empowerment. But what also warrants attention are some of the less noticeable consequences when gender norms are so narrowly defined across the board. For instance, if we characterize women as submissive, emotional, or alluring beings, then what does it mean to be a man? And how might damaging myths and stereotypes about masculinity produce its own host of social ills?

These questions remain central to The Representation Project’s latest documentary The Mask You Live In, a film that ambitiously seeks to re-evaluate how masculinity is defined and expressed in America. According to director Jennifer Siebel Newsom, when mainstream culture views masculinity as a rejection of everything feminine, traits like kindness, healthy emotions, and constructive resolution of conflict become undervalued if not wholly disregarded for most men. Instead, the prevailing norms that young boys receive from their homes—as well as in movies, sports, and video games—push them to equate masculinity with domination, violence, stoicism, financial success, or sexual conquest.

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A Muslim Actor Plays Jesus. It Works.

In a world surging with anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and the persecution of Christians, a Muslim is soon to portray Jesus in a film called Killing JesusBased on Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s bestselling book of the same name, the film seeks to capture the human dynamics and political milieu around the controversial death of Jesus of Nazareth.

Haaz Sleiman, a Lebanese-born American Muslim, was chosen to play the lead as the Jesus character. His selection makes him virtually the first actor of Middle Eastern descent to ever play the role in any mainstream film.

While National Geographic’s attempt at authenticity should be celebrated, the casting of Sleiman has, instead, stirred quite the controversy.

Imagine — in a context where religious tribalism is growing fiercer, a Muslim is embodying the role of a Palestinian Jew and central figure to Christianity. Is this a heretical impossibility or is this a picture of something beautiful?

On Tuesday, I sat down with Haaz to explore the uniqueness of this moment in his career and how the experience of embodying the life and teachings of Jesus has left him forever changed.

What immediately stood out is the grace with which he is handling the criticism from Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. Rather than worrying about the controversy, Sleiman feels lucky to have had the opportunity. For him, it was the “ultimate experience as an actor” as he had been “heavily shaped” by Jesus during his childhood. Growing up in a Muslim home, he was taught to revere Jesus as the prophet equal to Mohammed who had come to reveal the beauty and potential of humanity. To play this role gave him a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to “become the character that he truly believes in.”

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'It Follows' Explores the Spirituality of Horror

Should Christians like horror movies?

It’s a question that many a Christ-following cinema junkie has had to ask themselves. It’s hard not to feel a bit conflicted enjoying a zombie apocalypse or a masked maniac when peace and tolerance are core parts of your belief system. If we’re going to be discerning consumers of culture, what value is there in horror?

I could pose one of a dozen different possible answers, each with their own set of arguments — for example, how the collective act of yelling in the dark at a dumb teen NOT TO GO IN THE CABIN transcends race, politics, and gender. Or how horror can help us embrace the inherently supernatural elements of faith. Or how it does the important job of reminding us that evil exists in the world, and can take on any number of forms.

But the argument that truly separates the wheat from the tares is that great horror, going all the way back to its roots in gothic literature, offers some of the best social commentary there is. Truly iconic horror films (and horror stories, for that matter) allow us to go below the surface of your basic spine-chiller, and think about everything from racism to gender politics to the afterlife.

Horror is at its best when it gives you something to think about along with your creeps. The new film It Follows, out this weekend, fits that bill quite well. It also happens to be one of the scariest movies this year.

The plot feels like classic urban legend. Teenager Jay (Maika Monroe) is dating the slightly older Hugh (Jake Weary), and decides one night to go all the way with him. Once it’s over, however, Hugh informs Jay that he’s cursed by a demon, a demon he’s now passed on to her. The demon will follow Jay, slowly and consistently, until it catches up with her and kills her, unless she first passes it on to someone else through sexual contact. If the demon kills her, it will then return to stalk and kill Hugh. Only Jay can see the demon, and it can look like anyone, be it a stranger, friend, or beloved family member.

This premise could easily be turned into something silly and gratuitous, and were it a studio venture instead of a smaller independent film, It Follows might have been just that. But although writer-director David Robert Mitchell has made a movie in which sex plays a pivotal role, he’s more interested in the consequences of it than the act itself. It Follows is packed with symbolism that represents loss of innocence, the onset of adulthood, and reminders of mortality — the ever-approaching darkness that none of us escape. Grim, yes, but also pretty impressive in a genre more commonly associated with objectification and cheap thrills.

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'Dig’ TV Series Starts Adding Up: Watch the Numbers

"Dig," the new action-thriller series from the USA Network, is starting to add up — at least in terms of its religious content.

The third episode, broadcast March 19, advanced plot lines involving an apocalyptic sect of Jews, a desert-dwelling Christian cult, a stolen Torah breastplate rumored to be a telephone to God and a really cute baby cow named "Red" who is having a less-than-excellent adventure.

Tossed like a ball of spices into that potboiler of a story is a difficult biblical text, a secretive society dedicated to restoring the Jewish temple on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount and what may be a nod to Jewish numerology.

"It’s all about XIX," or the number 19, FBI agent Peter Connelly (Jason Isaacs) reads in a journal swiped from a murdered archaeologist.

Here — with spoiler alerts — is what’s behind the newly introduced religious elements to the "Dig" storyline.

Numerology:

Ever notice how in the Bible there are always 12 of this (Tribes of Israel, disciples) and 40 of that (days of rain, years in the desert)? It’s never eight or 11 or — heaven forbid — 17?

That’s because ancient cultures, especially biblical-era Jews, practiced numerology — the belief that numbers have specific religious or spiritual significance. There is a whole branch of study in Judaism called "gematria" by which letters of the Hebrew alphabet are given numerical values and scholars add them up in a search for meaning. The creators of "Dig" seem to be aware of this and are having some fun.

Twice in episode three, the number of Peter Connelly’s hotel room — seven — is pointedly shown. In numerology, seven is considered a perfect number, a "divine" number, the number of God. It represents holiness and sanctification — two themes that pop up over and over again in the search for the "pure" red heifer and the apparent need to keep the boy Joshua’s feet "unsoiled."

And when Peter has a bad dream, his bedside clock reads 11 p.m. In the Bible, 11 represents chaos, disorder, even impurity.

Then there’s that pesky number 19, which is behind much of the episode’s action. In biblical numerology, one is considered the number of God and nine is the number of his judgment. That sounds ominous enough for a thriller-conspiracy-action series like "Dig."

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'Little White Lie' — Untangling Family Secrets, Finding New Identity

The Schwartzs seemed like any other Jewish family in Woodstock, N.Y. except for one thing: Mom and Dad were obviously white, and their daughter Lacey was obviously not.

That racial disconnect would be easier to fathom if Peggy and Robert Schwartz hadn't had everyone believing their dark-skinned daughter was the biological child of both parents.

It would take Little White Lie, the film an adult Lacey made about family secrets and religious identity, to unpack this mystery.

“I grew up in a world of synagogue, Hebrew school, bar mitzvahs,” Schwartz narrates over a home movie montage of Jewish holiday celebrations and her own bat mitzvah.

“So it never occurred to me that I was passing,” she continues.

“I wasn’t pretending to be something I wasn’t. I actually grew up believing I was white.”

Little White Lie, which has enjoyed success on the film festival circuit and will reach a larger audience when PBS’s Independent Lens airs it on March 23, revolves around a flabbergasting central question: How could this family pretend that she owed her complexion to the genes of dad’s darkest Italian ancestor?

Schwartz said she wants the film to model how people can face up to family secrets and move on with their lives. In her case, the secret was her mother’s affair with a black man.

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'Merchants of Doubt' Dismantles Climate 'Skeptics' Spin But Misses Chance to Build Bridges

In one scene in the new documentary Merchants of Doubt, Michael Shermer, the publisher of Skeptic magazine, explains what he thinks is the underlying factor behind climate change skepticism.

“It isn’t about the science,” Shermer, a libertarian and former skeptic who came around on the issue in 2006, tells director Robert Kenner.

“It’s about me being a consistent team member; showing the members of my tribe that you can count on me.”

Tribalism is an important part of the equation. But Kenner, whose previous film was the well-regarded Food, Inc., believes corporate spin is just as much to blame.

Merchants of Doubt aims to show viewers how the same PR tactics that kept the tobacco industry thriving for decades are now being used to encourage climate change skepticism and denial. While the film does important work in helping audiences understand how paid representatives spread misinformation, it doesn’t do enough to address the tribalism that may keep the film’s most necessary audiences from seeing it.

READ Sojourners' interview with Merchants of Doubt Director Robert Kenner here.

To his credit, Kenner does an excellent job at making the subject matter appealing. He uses the framework of close-up magic as a metaphor for the way PR representatives work to cover up industry-damaging facts, first for tobacco, and then for coal, oil, and other clients. He interviews journalists, scientists, and lobbyists whose stories are at once fascinating and infuriating. There are even some sources, like conservative former South Carolina Rep. Bob Inglis, who manage to help the film build bridges with audiences whose tribal identity might require them to skew towards climate skepticism.

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Merchant of 'Doubt:' Robert Kenner, Director of 'Food, Inc.,' Has a New Film on Corporate Spin. Here's What He Says About It.

Robert Kenner is the director of the new corporate spin documentary Merchants of Doubt, now in theaters. The film explores how representatives of large industries create doubt on contentious issues like climate change by presenting themselves to the media as independent researchers. Kenner’s previous film, Food Inc., examined similarly sticky issues of truth and transparency in the food industry. Sojourners sat down with Robert Kenner after Doubt's Washington, D.C., premiere to discuss the nature of doubt and the rise of corporate involvement in media narrative-making

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Abby: Why did you want to use the tobacco industry to introduce audiences to the world of corporate spin? And why go from there to climate change?

Kenner: I see this as a film about this class of doubters, how there are these very talented people who are very successful at what they do. We just had a screening at the Columbia Journalism School, and someone there said that for every journalist, there’s 4.5 PR reps.

There used to be more journalists than PR reps — and some of these reps are now being paid by the people they used to investigate. So in effect, we’re looking at multiple industries. We could have spent as much time on pharmaceuticals or the food industry.

I was also certainly interested in the notion of how you can have these things like tobacco, like certain pharmaceutical issues, or like climate, where the science is clear yet the doubt persists. How do you maintain doubt when the science is clear that it’s about something else? What are the factors? And it turns out there multiple, of which money is one of the biggest.

Part of it is tribal, but that was true with gay rights, too, and all of a sudden six years later things have changed. I’m feeling kind of optimistic that it can change around the issue of climate from that perspective. 

But the thing that interested me most was how media could represent issues as if they were debates when they weren’t debates.

READ Sojourners' review of Merchants of Doubt here.

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Dissecting the 'House of Cards' Church Scene

All presidents beseech God to bless the United States of America. Many pray for divine aid for themselves or their policies. Some can only wonder at the inscrutable ways of the Almighty.

Then there’s Frank Underwood, who spits in God’s face.

Underwood is fictional, of course, the power-grabbing president and central character in the hit Netflix series House of Cards. And Underwood is a notoriously amoral — criminal, actually — practitioner of a realpolitik so brutal that nothing he does should be surprising.

Indeed, in the show’s first season, a frustrated Underwood stopped by a church and looked heavenward to speak to God, then down to address Satan. Finding no satisfying answer from either, he concluded:

“There is no solace above or below. Only us, small, solitary, striving, battling one another. I pray to myself, for myself.”

Still, it is almost jarring when, in the third and most recent season of the political thriller, Underwood — again stymied in his schemes — meets with a bishop late at night in a darkened sanctuary and engages in an extended debate on divine justice, power and love.

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Reclaiming 'Angry' Feminism and Other Lessons from 'She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry'

Bras weren’t the only things the second-wave feminists burned in the ‘60s. But that’s all I learned about the movement in school and casual conversation (on the rare occasions when feminist movements were brought up). The documentary, She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, fills in what our education system and historical imaginations leave out.

Second-wave feminists also burned oppressive patriarchy, definitions of feminine beauty, and, most poignant to me, their hard-earned diplomas. They literally set fire to bachelors degrees, masters degrees, and PhD certificates. An activist in the film explained, "We had graduated and learned nothing about women."

This documentary shows us what the textbooks didn’t and still don’t show often enough — the early, angry, undoubtedly beautiful grassroots radicals.

Of course, not all anger is beautiful. Some anger is abusive, relentless, and uncontrollable. I noticed three types of anger in the documentary — one beautiful, and two problematic.

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