The Common Good

Culture Watch

WATCH: 7 Video Clips That Showcase Robin Williams' Brilliance

We lost a funny man on Monday to a sad and persistent disease. Robin Williams passed away last night of an apparent suicide.

In memory of Williams, we've compiled a few of our favorite scenes.

1. Aladdin

Williams' performance as the lovable Genie: "Ten thousand years will give you such a crick in the neck!" 

 

 

 
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Five Reasons post-Christianity Is Good for Us

Anyone who has been paying attention knows that Christianity is in decline in the western world by all accounts. From progressive mainline churches to evangelical mega-churches, most institutional religious bodies are experiencing precipitous drops in attendance and giving. Meanwhile, the Christian voice in the civil and political conversations is also giving way to other perspectives, be they Jewish, Muslim, or secular humanist. It’s no longer a dark mark on one’s social character to say they don’t go to church, or even that they’re not a Christian.

For many leaders within organized Christian circles, this is all a call to arms, a warning shot across the proverbial bow to wake us up from our slumber and engage the impinging culture war with renewed commitment.

But as I suggest in my new book, postChristian: What’s Left? Can we fix it? Do we care? It’s actually good news. Granted, it may not slow the decline and closure of churches anytime soon, and we Christians will likely continue to lose some degree of political clout, but I argue that this isn’t the point. It never was. And in fact, our numerical, political and even financial success in recent generations has taken us far off track.

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Are We the United States of Dystopia? The Politics of 'The Giver'

This Friday, a movie version of the classic novel “The Giver” opens in theaters with an impressive cast, including Oscar winners Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges. “The Giver,” originally written by Lois Lowry, explores a seemingly perfect world where all conflicts have been resolved and annoyances — such as bad weather and adolescent “stirrings” — have been eradicated, allowing this culture to achieve a beautiful state of “sameness.”

As you can imagine, this utopian society is not so utopian. “The Giver” focuses on young Jonas, who has been selected for a daunting task: to serve as society’s sole proprietor of memory and emotion. Jonas learns about pain and sadness, but also experiences beautiful colors, a thrilling sleigh ride and ultimately learns to feel love. In other words, Jonas learns what it means to be human — and that his world may not be so perfect after all.

“The Giver” is the latest in a wave of dystopian stories that have washed over America in recent years. From this summer’s “Purge” sequel and “Under the Dome” to the latest “Hunger Games” movie (due out in November), people can’t get enough of these apocalyptic fantasies, in which seemingly perfect worlds turn horrific.

Why such an appetite for dystopian stories now?

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Gown of Grief: The Collection’s Songs of Mourning and Celebration

No abundant bright bloom of flowers on the CD cover or obscure Latin in the title or gentle dance of cursive font describing the song list, nothing can hide that this is not your light-and-breezy summer release of cruising-with-the-top-down jams, but rather, a full-blown concept album of folk hymns about the art of dying.

The Art of Dying (officially Ars Moriendi) represents a brave and risky move for the make-it or break-it breakout album of an up-and-coming band. The Collection’s courageous collection of orchestral pop hymns chart and curate the grieving heart of a gifted songwriter and the community of bandmates and fans that surround him.

At a time when the flame of the alternative folk explosion still burns bright despite much backlash, this North Carolina ensemble shows up as the son of Mumford and Sons, married to Edward Sharpe’s second cousin, with too many members to pack the tiny stages of clubs and bars, with a sound fit for mountaintop vistas, and songs as mystic visions that pierce the veil between life and death.

Despite the heavy earnestness of the entire package, it’s exactly the grief-support-group that my ears need, and I imagine a rendering of fragile faith and hope against hope that our world craves. The Collection manage to sing about Jesus and Thomas and the prodigal son without getting pushy, dancing on the fringe of explicit CCM, exploring sacred-meets-secular crossover paths and gritty crossroads that groups like Needtobreathe, Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors, and Gungor have already traveled.

Death remains that earthly finality to render our denial mute — and our religious musings about whether it represents cosmic reunion, bodily resurrection, or eternal rest are powerless when we admit that the mysterious premonitions of the “heaven is real” crowd are but passing glimpses and not bulletproof facts. The Christians that remain relevant in our world have invested in the Kingdom here, now, and all around us, and they don’t shove tracts that guarantee afterlife fantasies in our faces on the same street corners where tramps and hobos sleep and sometimes starve.

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REVIEW: HBO's The Leftovers, a Grim Take on the Limits of Grief and Faith

HBO’s “The Leftovers” is the feel-good series of the summer, if your summer revolves around root canals and recreational waterboarding.

Indeed, it’s pretty grim stuff — but quite engrossing and worth your time, thanks to intense performances by Justin Theroux and Christopher Eccleston, and the way creators Tom Perrotta, who wrote the book on which the series is based, and Damon Lindelof, best known for screwing up the end of “Lost,” unflinchingly tackle the nature of grief and the limits of faith.

Can you call it an apocalypse if you can still get a decent bagel afterwards? It’s three years after what has been termed the Sudden Departure, when 2 percent of the world’s population — Christians, Jews, Muslims, straight, gay, white, black, brown, and Gary Busey — suddenly disappeared.

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'Punk Jews' Highlights Judaism's 'Myriad Flavors'

"Here's how you bring light into the world," says a scruffy-bearded man in shirtsleeves and a knit cap on a Brooklyn rooftop. "First, you get up in the morning and you scream!" His mischievous grin melts into something more ethereally content as he screams. At length.

He's had plenty of practice screaming — he does it for a living.

The man is Yishai Romanoff, lead singer of the hassidic punk band Moshiach Oi and one of the half-dozen artists, activists, and culture-makers profiled in the documentary Punk Jews.

The phrase can seem like an oxymoron: The essence of punk is to challenge inherited convention, yet adherence to rich traditions of convention is the common through-line of all of Judaism's myriad flavors.

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Maleficent the Feminist? A Cautionary Tale

If the new Disney Studios movie Maleficent is, as some are saying, a feminist attempt to redeem images of weak and powerless women in fairy tales, then it is a cautionary tale. Feminism has always been its own worst enemy when it strives to create women in the image of men rather than encourage women to abandon rivalry with men and seek their flourishing elsewhere. This is a story about the redemptive power of a mother’s love. I wonder how many feminists will embrace that message?

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People Love Their Nickel Creek

The last time I listened to Nickel Creek was to analyze their adaptation of Robert Burns’ poem, “Sweet Afton,” in my English literature class in college three years ago. Indeed, the waters of Nickel Creek flow gently, a trait reflected in “Sweet Afton” and many other Nickel Creek staples. And that general lack of bite, paired with an almost robotic mastery of each band members’ respective instrument, pushed me away from the band.

So it was strange that, with no expectations and an arbitrarily negative perception of the classic folk band, I really enjoyed seeing Nickel Creek reunite in Washington, D.C. after a six-year hiatus. The show, in sum, was really, really good.

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What If You Never Prayed Again?

There’s a place in the cultural conversation for both friars and fools, for those who discern truth through contemplation and prayer, as well as those who seek to reveal it through satire and silliness. But it’s not every day that both come together for substantive (if not always serious) theological conversation.

Aric Clark, Nick Larson, and Doug Hagler, also known online as Two Friars and a Fool, host such conversations on their blog and podcast about theology and spiritual practice, sexuality, and popular culture. They recently combined forces as well for their first book, Never Pray Again: Lift Your Head, Unfold Your Hands and Get to Work. The intentionally provocative title emphasizes the need for Christians to get outside of our own heads and churches, and about the business of being the hands and feet of Jesus in a world in need.

I chatted with the trio recently about their new project, as well as the “Never Pray Again” coloring book, which they crowd funded through a recently successful Kickstarter campaign.

 

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'Kosher Lust': Rabbi Shmuley Boteach Says It's More Important Than Love

Celebrity Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, spiritual counselor to Michael Jackson, onetime Republican candidate for Congress, and author of the best-selling “Kosher Sex” and “Kosher Jesus,” has a new book for Jews and non-Jews alike: “Kosher Lust.”

Its provocative subtitle: “Love Is Not the Answer.”

The answer, Boteach says, is lust, the God-given fuel for a healthy marriage. Love, he argues, cannot sustain marriage, but lust — what he calls the unfairly maligned member of the Seven Deadly Sins — can.

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