The Common Good

Culture Watch

New and Improved Christmas Hymns

One of the downsides of a theological education (and/or an overactive theological imagination) is an inability to sing some favorite old hymns with naive gusto. During this Christmas season in particular, we simply know too much about the biblical story (and the reality of childbirth and babies in general) to fully believe all of the touching words in some of the most popular Christmas carols.

So as a public service, I have written historically accurate versions of three of the most beloved holiday hymns. Without personally endorsing any of the theology below, I also offer some alternatives to those who don't theologically jive with the current version of "Joy to the World."

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Why Switchfoot Won’t Write Christian Songs

Way back in the day (circa 2004), Switchfoot's lead singer, Jon Foreman, was asked if the band is a “Christian” band. Even though it's been a while, his response is worth looking at again.

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Gareth Higgins on Peace, Politics, and Our Nation's 'Cinematic States'

Lots of people like movies; Gareth Higgins loves movies. But the founding director of the Wild Goose Festival and long-time peace activist engages popular culture with a different eye than most of us. And he’s used that keen eye for deeper meaning to create his latest book.

I asked Gareth about his new book on American film, his peace work, and what it’s like considering American culture both as an insider and as a non-native. Here’s what he had to say.

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The Engine of Change Is on Full Throttle

My first career: print journalism. Current status of that field: on life support.

My second career: pastoring neighborhood churches. Current status of that field: on life support.

My third career: writing and publishing books. Current status of that field: on life support.

My fourth career: implementing client-server data management systems. Current status of that field: on life support.

Do you see a trend here? I did. So now I try to stay nimble and to keep moving. My publishing business is entirely electronic. I have cycled through three websites and three subscription systems in 10 months. I do more of my church consulting online.

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Francis Spufford's Christian Apology Aimed at 'Godless Europeans'

British novelist and essayist Francis Spufford’s spirited defense of the Christian religion is in some ways like eavesdropping on a missionary conversation with the pagans of antiquity.

Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense — is the latest attempt at an ancient literary form, the Christian apology, and it makes its appearance in the United States more than a year after it was published in England.

Spufford’s defense of Christianity is aimed primarily at what he calls “godless Europeans,” the post-Enlightenment elites who tend to regard religion with bemusement as a silly fairy tale, if not with open hostility as a dangerous superstition.

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Meet Sally Lloyd-Jones, the Most Successful Christian Author You’ve Never Heard of

How do you get kids to read one of the world’s oldest books? Ask Sally Lloyd-Jones, whose The Jesus Storybook Bible recently passed the critical mark of one million copies sold.

The British ex-pat and now proud New Yorker has never married or had children of her own, yet aims to retell the Bible to something that comes alive for young people.

One of her editors told her once that there are two types of children’s books authors: the ones who are around children, and the ones who are children inside.

“It kind of freed me, because I think I know I’m that second one,” she said. “And I can still write from that place, because my childhood is so vivid.”

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Heartbreak and Hope in Miami

Last week, I attended a screening of Documented, Jose Antonio Vargas’ film about his coming out as an undocumented immigrant after winning the Pulitzer Prize. His journey is honest, poignant, and humorous. A lesser subject would have cut some of the material showing the strain of the situation on his familial relations, but the film never flinches from the raw story.

I sat in on a panel discussion after the screening filled with members of an organization featured in the film, “DREAMers Moms.” I had a chance to speak with several of them, and one story stuck out in particular. One mom left her country for the good of her children so they would have hope of a positive future in the United States. She hasn’t seen her mother in 13 years and won’t until immigration reform is passed into law. If she leaves the U.S., it’s likely she wouldn’t be allowed to return and care for her children. This would leave them essentially orphans who would be placed into foster care. Her mother is now in her 80s, frail and sick. This woman is losing hope of ever again touching the woman who cared for her, but still prays daily for a miracle.

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Aging Expert Vern Bengtson: Boomers Will Return to Church

Baby boomers might not be that different from the Greatest Generation when it comes to religion. Like their parents, many boomers will attend religious services later in life. But unlike their parents, baby boomers are more likely to describe a deep, intense spiritual connection from a personal experience than a religious one from an institutional practice.

Many of them don’t know it yet, said a researcher at this week’s annual conference of the Gerontological Society of America in New Orleans, but growing old, regardless of what generation you belong to, brings on dramatic changes that can propel people to seek new meaning in religious services.

Vern Bengtson is the author of the recently published Families and Faith with co-authors Susan Harris and Norella Putney. He based his findings and predictions on a 35-year longitudinal study of 350 Southern California families and interviews with a subset of 156 families. The study’s scope spanned six generations from 1909 to 1988. The conversations explored spirituality, religious beliefs, intensities, and practices.

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Hollywood: Whitewashing the Bible

Following the success of the History Channel's mini-series, The Bible, which appeared weekly last March, Hollywood seems to have renewed an avenue in which Biblical adaptations are allowed to enjoy a significant amount of limelight.

Two blockbuster titles are to set to be released in 2014: Paramount Picture's Noah and 21st Century Fox's Exodus. These two films both boast a star-studded cast as directors Darren Aronofsky and Ridley Scott hope to astonish audiences by combining stunning visualizations with two of the most popular accounts from the Old Testament, the Great Flood and the Exodus out of Egypt.

As a Christian and an avid movie-goer, I was thrilled to read that these two films were in production. However, once I saw the actors cast to play the leading roles in these two films, my excitement quickly turned to disdain. Not a single one of the leading roles in either movie was given to a person of Middle Eastern descent.

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In Search of the Real Alec Baldwin

Alec Baldwin was caught on video venting his rage against a photographer and using a homophobic slur. I actually don’t follow Alec on Twitter or keep up with celebrity news on TMZ, but apparently he’s put similar slurs in writing. In this case, however, he denies using a homophobic slur, saying he is being misquoted. And as proof that he is not homophobic, in fact just the opposite, he points to his work on behalf of marriage equality with GLAAD. In defense of his actions in the video, he insists he was only defending his family’s privacy — in the video we can clearly hear him shouting at the photographer to stay away from his wife and his baby. Here’s a brief excerpt from his blog post in which Baldwin expresses his desire to protect his family and neighbors from media harassment:

I am concerned for my family. In Bloomberg's New York, forty or fifty paparazzi are allowed to block streets, inconvenience homeowners, workers and shoppers, and make life miserable for my neighbors. Photographers have tripped and fallen on babies in strollers on my block. They have nearly struck my wife in the face with microphones. They provoke me, daily, by getting dangerously close to me with their cameras as weapons, hoping I will react. When I do, the weapon doubles as a device to record my reaction. And then, apparently, I lose every time. 

And here’s what the prominent blogger Andrew Sullivan had to say. He is among many who called for accountability from Baldwin, GLAAD and his current employer MSNBC. (At this writing MSNBC has suspended Baldwin’s show for two weeks.) Here’s what Sullivan said:

Look: Baldwin’s anger… was thoroughly merited. But he continually resorts to this kind of homophobic poison when he’s angry. Just as Mel Gibson revealed his true feelings about Jews in his drunken rant, so Baldwin keeps revealing his own anti-gay bigotry. These outbursts reveal who he actually is. (Emphasis in original)

So which is it? Is Baldwin a raging (literally) homophobe or is he a decent guy protecting his family and neighbors? Whenever I encounter an either/ or choice like this, I know I am in the presence of a possible scapegoating incident for three reasons.

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