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Culture Watch

Catching Up and Catching Grace with Singer-Songwriter Sam Phillips

This world is so beautiful

For no reason at all

When life circles around

And you can’t see straight

– from “Can’t See Straight” by Sam Phillips

"Push Any Button,” the first new physical album in five years from singer-songwriter Sam Phillips, is a blithe, fetching exploration of life’s flip side — after the flush of youth, after the heartbreak, after the bottom falls out and the road bends and you head in a wholly unexpected direction that turns out to be exactly where you need to be.

“Push Any Button,” which dropped Aug. 13, looks to the future by examining the past, viewing both through a lens of stubborn (and optimistic) grace.

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Problems with Christian Contemporary Music: An Interview with Trey Pearson of 'Everyday Sunday'

Trey Pearson, front man and creative mind behind the band, Everyday Sunday, is in many ways the picture of a successful Contemporary Christian Music artist. He’s toured the world, played to thousands of fans at a time and sold hundreds of thousands of records. So I was intrigued when I sat down with him at the recent Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina to learn more about why this icon of Christian pop was going solo with his most recent record. 

How did you get started in the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) scene?

I was introduced to the scene as a teenager, finding out that people listened to "Christian music.” I started going to "Christian concerts,” and was inspired to write my own songs and have a band. I was already into performance art as a teenager from doing theater, musicals, acting, and modeling for commercials, print, and things of that nature. I grew up teaching myself piano, and was intrigued by the idea of playing songs for people. 

Given my background, I felt like I needed to do "Christian songs" to glorify God with my art. Long story short, after opening for several signed artists, I dropped out of college (after being on honor roll through my freshman year) to make an independent album and pursue a record deal. I went to Nashville, and knocked on doors until someone would listen. I signed a deal three months after I released my independent album.

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'You've Got Mail,' A Swedish Movie About Death, Kissing Dating Goodbye, and Finding Love Despite Pride and Prejudice

My husband and I basically fell in love via AOL instant message conversations that led to daily email missives and then to phone calls and then, you know, to actually hanging out in person.

We knew each other in ‘real’ life but I was so afraid of saying something stupid in front of him that I basically ignored him, which, as it happens, is not a great way to indicate that you actually really like someone. But IM-ing made me bold.

So, in a way, You’ve Got Mail feels like one of “our” movies since it parallels our story just a little.

“Our” real movie is Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, which is a 1957 Swedish movie about a knight returning from the crusades during the Black Death who is engaged throughout the movie in a chess match with Death, so, yeah, basically the opposite of You’ve Got Mail.

We were both at a “movie night” at one of our professor’s homes. I’d known he was going to be there and wrote in my meticulous, OCD handwriting in my journal:

I’m so nervous because Tim Stone is going to be there and I don’t want to find him attractive.

Heaven forbid I find him attractive, right? I had clearly been a little too good at "Kissing Dating Goodbye" (thanks, Josh Harris!) In those days when someone asked me out for coffee I usually responded with horror, like they’d just ask me to help dispose of a body.

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Steve Jobs: Prophet of a New Religion

The new movie about Steve Jobs is short on anything explicitly religious. Like its main character, however, it’s got a thread of transcendence running through it.

The truth about Jobs and religion may be that, in this arena as in others, he was ahead of the cutting edge.

The film isn’t making the purists happy, in part because it takes too many liberties with history. But it’s not a documentary. I’ll go against many of the reviews and say that Ashton Kutcher does a pretty good job at representing the personality found in Jobs’ speeches and in what has been written about Jobs — particularly in the massive authorized biography by Walter Isaacson.

One quote in that book, from one of Jobs’ old girlfriends, pretty much captures the character in the film: “He was an enlightened being who was cruel,” she told Isaacson. “That’s a strange combination.”

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'The Butler:' Owning Our Collective Story

As people stepped on our toes and stood anxiously in front of us, waiting to exit the crowded theater, three of us sat weeping at the close of Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Even now, as I recall that moment, it brings tears to my eyes.

How do I describe the movie? Utterly intense. Remarkable. Heartbreaking. Inspiring. A genius capturing of the complexities of the Civil Rights Movement, of the history of race in America in the 20th and early 21st centuries, of presidential decision making, and of family.

I sat next to my colleague, Lisa Sharon Harper, who sobbed at the violence, tragedy, and passionate courage displayed on screen. It was a challenge. To be a white woman sitting next to an African-American woman as she wept over the suffering of her people — often at the hands of my people. It was neither her nor I who had perpetrated these specific acts, but we are certainly still caught in the tangled web of systemic racism and the histories that our ancestors have wrought us.

Even as we had waited in the theater prior to the movie's start, we spoke of serious subjects. She shared some of her lineage and the challenges of legal records that simply do not exist when ancestors are slaves or perhaps a Cherokee Indian who escaped the Trail of Tears in Kentucky and suddenly appears on the U.S. Census in 1850 as an adult. We spoke of her leadership in the church, and I encouraged her to continue speaking even though she is one of the lone women who graces the stages in front of national audiences. I told her, "You must do this so that other women who come after you can do this. You must do this for women right now. You must do this so that I can do this." We bonded over being women in ministry.

And then the separation came. I do not know Lisa's shoes — the road that she walks due to the color of her skin. I see her in all of her glory — passion, intelligence, creativity — and not in all of her blackness. Our world sees her with racial eyes.

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'Zealot:' How Reza Aslan Constructed a False Jesus

Reza Aslan begins of his book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, with a prescient warning: “Scholars tend to see the Jesus they want to see. Too often they see themselves—their own reflection—in the image of Jesus they have constructed” (xxxi).

I don’t think Aslan had himself in mind when wrote that statement, but you should be warned: the Jesus in Zealot is Aslan’s own false construction.

His central thesis is that the Jesus of history, and the God Jesus believed in, demanded violence in the face of political and religious oppression. Here’s one of the relevant passages:

[F]or those seeking the simple Jewish peasant and charismatic preacher who lived in Palestine two thousand years ago, there is nothing more important than this one undeniable truth: the same God whom the Bible calls a “man of war”(Exodus 15:3), the God who repeatedly command the wholesale slaughter of every foreign man, woman, and child who occupies the land of the Jews, the “blood spattered God” of Abraham, and Moses, and Jacob, and Joshua (Isaiah 63:3) the God who “shatters the heads of his enemies,” bids his warriors to bathe their feet in their blood and leave their corpses to be eaten by dogs (Psalm 68:21-23)—that is the only God that Jesus knew and the sole God that he worshipped. (122, emphasis in the original.)

The problem that I have with this passage is indicative of the problem that I have with the way Aslan constructs his Jesus. He constantly picks and chooses which verses from the Bible he uses to support his claim that Jesus was a warrior messiah whose goal was to violently overthrow the Roman and religious establishment. He peels away all passages that conflict with his construction so that he can show us what Jesus was truly like.

Well, what Aslan thinks Jesus was truly like.

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Walter White and the Gospel According to ‘Breaking Bad’

Wither Walter White?

How the morality tale of a cancer-stricken chemistry teacher who transforms himself (first by desperation and then through sheer hubris) into a cold-blooded, Machiavellian drug kingpin will end is what legions of fans of AMC’s Emmy-winning Breaking Bad want to know.

But after the first episode of the series’ final season aired on Aug. 11, the answer to what happens to Walter White (Bryan Cranston) remains a mystery — at least for another seven weeks.

Since its debut in January 2008, Breaking Bad has taken its audience on a spiritual journey — following Walt’s soul on a slow, steady descent into a hell of his own creation.

“Fleeting moments of possible restoration for Walter occur throughout the series,” Blake Atwood writes in the new book The Gospel According to Breaking Bad, which was released as an e-book to coincide with the season premiere.

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The Spirituality of Fun.

I love Fun.. I especially love the wacky period at the end of the band’s name. But my Word doc has the green squiggly line under the two periods of that first sentence. I hate that green squiggly line — it’s not fun. It’s there to tell me that I have bad grammar. Not this time, Word doc! I shall right click and ignore you!

Fun.’s (okay, now there’s a red line! Once again I shall ignore…) Some Nights is full of philosophical and spiritual gold. It asks questions about identity, friendship, violence, and the purpose of life. But, for me, these words stand out the most:

My heart is breaking for my sister and the con that she calls “love”

When I look into my nephew’s eyes…

Man, you wouldn’t believe the most amazing things that can come from…

Some terrible nights…ah…

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3 Reasons I Really Did Not Like Michael Pollan's Newest, 'Cooked'

I really did not like Michael Pollan's newest offeringCooked: A Natural History of Transformation. Here are three reasons why:

1. The premise feels phony and staged.

Pollan has said that he is “more at home in the garden than the kitchen” (In Defense of Food), but this modesty about his cooking skills is less than convincing to those who read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, in which he prepared a highly local meal of wild pork cooked two ways, bread leavened with wild yeasts he captured himself, and a sour cherry galette with fruit from Pollan’s own trees.

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PBS' Series 'Life of Muhammad' May Surprise Viewers

He’s born poor. By age 6, he’s an orphan. Two years later, he loses his grandfather. Yet he overcomes his circumstances, develops a reputation for business integrity and progressive views on marriage.

Then he becomes a prophet of God.

The portrait of the Muslim prophet, which emerges from a PBS documentary “Life of Muhammad,” may surprise some American viewers.

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