Tis the season of Jesus, Santa and Pope Francis. It’s too early to place Francis in the pantheon of church reformers alongside Gregory VII or Adrian VI—or even next to John XXIII, who memorably announced the Second Vatican Council by saying that it was time to “open the windows and let some fresh air in.” But the early returns on the first Latin American pontiff suggest that his will be anything but a caretaker papacy.
Then & Now
Religious historians take on the present
Last week, Ghana’s parliament approved a Ghanaian company to explore oil fields off its coast. This is noteworthy because most companies working to extract Ghana’s oil are American or European. In fact, in 2007 it was a U.S.-based company that discovered the vast oil reserve. To transnational piracy and the increased U.S. military presence that have accompanied oil, Ghana has responded with lively, public debate about neocolonialism—a term coined by Ghana’s founding father Kwame Nkrumah.
Billy Graham’s 95th birthday party last week was a heartwarming event—and a media spectacle. Most accounts of the celebration emphasized the star-studded guest list. Even in his golden years, Graham has not lost his golden touch: an aura of wholesome Christian patriotism that appeals to entertainers looking to transcend showbiz as well as to culture warriors on the make. The reporters who covered the party provided a window into Graham’s lasting power as a cultural icon, but they largely missed his significance to American Christianity.
Last week, ghosts, superheroes and zombies walked our neighborhoods in search of treats. But the holiday for dwelling in the possibility of the spooky is a fleeting thing. Halloween has come and gone. Yet the zombies remain. They shamble on in our popular culture all year long.
The 1853 slave narrative Twelve Years a Slave is now a major motion picture directed by Steve McQueen. The film is a faithful rendering of the life of Solomon Northup, a free African American man who is sold into chattel bondage and brutally enslaved. Northup’s life story highlights one of the little-known facets of American slavery: the dangers that free black people faced during the antebellum era, with little legal recourse if they were cheated, harmed, brutalized or even sold into slavery. Northup was eventually freed. But there were countless others whose names we cannot know.
As the debacle unfolded over the Affordable Care Act, I stumbled to find some solace amidst the storm of stupidity that seemed to defy politics and logic. And when I stumble I usually look to Reinhold Niebuhr.
Christian Mingle wants to help God help you. The dating site’s motto comes from Psalm 37: “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.” Christian Mingle reflects a move from broad dating pools like Match.com to niche markets of personal preferences and identities. Christian Mingle’s goal is to help singles “make new friends or to find a life-partner that shares similar values, traditions and beliefs.” My guess is that more log in for the latter.
Recently, Secretary of State John Kerry explained that if he could do it all over again, he would major in “comparative religion.” Were it not for a Supreme Court decision 50 years ago, this might not have even been possible.
When President Obama argued for U.S. strikes on Syria, he used a familiar trope: When, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional. Yet his proposed Syria policy put him in new political territory: against the views of a majority of African Americans.
When commemorations are only read about or considered from an armchair, they are often cleansed of the visceral. Space and place are always contested, open to multiple interpretations.
If you look closely, Jesus makes an important cameo appearance in the American Film Institute’s best movie of 2012, Silver Linings Playbook. Most of our attention goes to the bipolar Pat (dreamy Bradley Cooper) and the grieving Tiffany (sultry Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence). They jog, bicker, fanatically root for the Eagles, and dance in the most eyebrow-raising of ways. But one constant amid the family chaos is a framed image of Jesus.