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I have a question. It’s one I think I know the answer to already, but I’m still reckless enough to “go there” anyway. See, there’s this author whom I like and respect who tweeted something earlier today that, after giving it some thought, I decided was (among other things) insensitive. Another word that came to mind for his tweet was “offensive,” but I didn’t want to overreact. That’s partly why I’d like to solicit some opinions from others out here in Social Media Land. The tweet came from the bestselling author Eric Metaxas, whose biography on Bonhoeffer was an undeniably impressive literary achievement albeit controversial for many. Anyway, though I enjoy his writing, I’ve determined that he and I probably don’t reside in the same vicinity on the ideological spectrum — he being outspokenly conservative and me striving to remain as politically independent as possible. In any event, earlier today I spotted this in my string of Twitter updates:

You’ll need to click on the link to view said photo, but I’ll quickly describe it here as a weird photoshopped image of the poet Maya Angelou cradling an adoring Barack Obama’s head. I agree with Metaxas that it’s creepy. However, it doesn’t take much searching on Google to discover that the image was a manipulation of a shot from this 2011 event where President Obama honored Ms. Angelou with the U.S. Medal of Freedom. The “creepy” image was clearly created by someone who is not a fan of either President Obama or Ms. Angelou — for instance, it was used in this person’s blog post. You can expect this type of political silliness from ideologues from both sides of the political spectrum. But the thing that bothers me most is Metaxas’ observation at the end: “Maya Angelou looks like Satchmo in a dress.” What does that mean?

Maya Angelou is now 84 years old. I will go ahead and confess my admiration for the woman as an artist and a tireless voice for freedom. But even if I didn’t care for her, I would hope I wouldn’t nonchalantly suggest that she looks like a man. To me, when I see Maya Angelou, I see a woman who looks like mothers and aunts and grandmothers and great-grandmothers that I’ve known both from my family and the families of others. Hers is the appearance of a woman of grace, experience, and hard-earned wisdom. It never occurred to me to compare her to someone of the opposite gender. So, yes, I guess I’m offended. And a little confused.

I believe I spoke to Mr. Metaxas once or twice when I worked at Christianity Today a decade ago. I think he’s a talented writer with a great sense of humor. As a wannabe historian, I admire his ability to write massive works of biographical history. I’ve been inspired by his deep expressions of faith. What I don’t understand is whether he meant the Maya Angelou crack as a mischievous political jab (given Ms. Angelou’s fondness for President Obama), or whether he meant it as something more hurtful. In my preference for avoiding controversy whenever possible, I’m going to assume it’s the former option. But somebody please tell me if I’m over — or under — reacting to a tweet that just doesn’t feel right.

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WBEZ, the local public radio station here in Chicago, has been doing some noteworthy investigative reporting on the pathetic state of Illinois prisons — overcrowded facilities, broken windows, insect infestations. Worst of all, hundreds upon hundreds of men sitting in their cells, doing nothing productive (or rehabilitative) with their time.

The WBEZ coverage started in earnest earlier this year when Governor Pat Quinn refused to allow reporter Rob Wildeboer to view the conditions inside state prisons. After months of petitioning, Quinn finally relented, but only after WBEZ threatened him and the Department of Corrections with a lawsuit.

The resulting tour of the Vienna state prison in southern Illinois provides some insightful commentary and observations on the prison business in general. Though focused on Illinois, WBEZ’s coverage has shone a light on some of the systemic problems facing many prison systems around the nation: Are they simply holding bins for people we’ve given up on (at the cost of millions of dollars), or should prisons be working to transform and rehabilitate their occupants for more productive lives after incarceration?

One of the more compelling voices in the coverage came from Dean Harper, who retired from his job as a corrections officer at Vienna in 1991. He recalled things being quite different at the prison 25 years ago. Says WBEZ’s Wildeboer:

When Harper worked at the prison he would help the inmates get jobs around town: picking apples, bailing hay, doing construction and they were paid minimum wage.

“And they sent part of that home and then kept part and then people had a different look as far as what inmates really was,” Harper said. “They’re human too.”

…. In those days, Harper says the prison offered college classes and Vienna residents would also enroll and go to the prison and sit in classes next to inmates.

Today little is done at Vienna to actually improve its prisoners’ lives. Instead, they sit around in delapidated conditions at tax-payer expense, mostly doing nothing — unless watching television is considered a rehabilitative practice.

Harper believes the mentality of those running the prison system is backward today. In what might be the most prophetic comment of the report, Harper says, “When you take away a person’s ability to do good because they have done bad, what do you leave them?”

I believe that’s a question worth pondering, especially in light of God’s heart for the prisoner and the New Testament admonition to “Remember those in prison, as if you were there yourself” (Heb. 13:3). A good place to start might be to read a book such as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, which examines the mass incarceration of people of color in America and the root causes for this phenomenon. Or you might want to get involved with a prison ministry such as Prison Fellowship, or the Philadelphia-based Healing Communities Prison Ministry and Reentry Project, which is led by my friend Dr. Harold Dean Trulear.

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I’ve intentionally held off on commenting on the Shirley Sherrod story until now. I guess I didn’t want to make the same mistake as all the other folks who chimed in before all the facts were known. Of course, any story about race is a constantly moving target, so who knows what new wrinkles the saga will bring this week? In any event, you can now read my reflections on last week’s developments at UrbanFaith.com.

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I know that most folks are tired of hearing about the whole LeBron James saga. For the past few weeks, it’s been nonstop speculation and rumors. Then, finally, last week James shocked the world, especially Northeast Ohio, with his decision to bolt to Miami for better weather—and presumably a better chance to win an NBA championship. I reflect on the drama in a commentary at UrbanFaith.com, where I explore the various messianic monikers that have been attached to James by his marketers and himself (e.g., the King, the Chosen One) and I wonder whether now a more appropriate biblical metaphor might be “the Prodigal Son.”

I know there are more important things happening in the world, and that when it comes down to it LeBron is only a basketball player. But, as Washington Post columnist and ESPN analyst Michael Wilbon says in this great piece, the LeBron story touches on so many other cultural flashpoints beyond simply sports. We’re talking issues of money and power, family and friendship, civic pride and loyalty, manhood and responsibility, and, of course, race.

You’ve got Dan Gilbert, the bitter owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, posting a scathing anti-James screed at the team’s website, accusing his former employee of betraying the team as well as his hometown. You’ve got folks in Ohio burning jerseys and scrambling to dismantle the gigantic downtown murals of LeBron that, to the outsider, always appeared just a little bit too excessive (like a shrine to a Greek deity, or like the Jackson brothers strolling triumphantly over the earth). And now you’ve got Jesse Jackson accusing Gilbert of viewing James as a runaway slave.

You knew the race angle was coming. It’s never too far away when you’re talking about professional sports in America, especially in the NBA, where 99 percent of the ballplayers are black and 99 percent of the franchise owners are white. William Rhoden’s controversial 2006 book, Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is just one of many commentaries linking pro sports in modern America to the slave trade of yesteryear. 

I wish Rev. Jackson wouldn’t have been the one to verbalize the obvious pachyderm in the room (“There he goes again, injecting race into everything!” folks will say), but there it is.

Personally, while I think it’s probably impossible to completely extract race from the issue of power relationships in pro sports, I believe Gilbert should be allowed to rant, rage, and generally come across as an emotional jerk without being accused of racism. He simply reacted like any scorned human being whose business just lost an estimated $100 million in value probably would. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. That said, I think it would’ve been wise for him to wait a few days before issuing a statement. The unintentional damage that he caused his franchise through his outburst could be worse in the long term than losing LeBron James.

Still, it’s unfair to imply that Gilbert is acting out of a “slave master mentality” just because he happens to be white and LeBron is black. That doesn’t excuse the fact that Gilbert might be a mean, arrogant, and impulsive billionaire who was trying to save face. But why add “racist” to the equation without sufficient proof?

But back to LeBron James. As long as he’s still able to do the things that LeBron James does on the basketball court, his reputation as a superstar player, though tarnished, will recover. The real tragedy, in my view, is the way James made his announcement. He had every right to leave Cleveland, but why do it in such a … ahem … cavalier manner? He was apparently so disconnected from the reality of his decision—and focused on his own self-interest—that he could not grasp the full implications of rejecting his former team and his devoted fans in Northeast Ohio on national TV in an overblown ESPN special. Or, as some have speculated, maybe he did it that way to inflict maximum pain on Gilbert and his franchise for some behind-the-scenes reason.

Either way, I hope James will someday grow into a more mature understanding of humility and compassion. Come to think of it, in an odd way, maybe that’s why he’s going to a place with two other elite stars in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh (not to mention team president Pat Riley). Maybe he’s leaving the comfort, security, and adoration found in Cleveland because in his home state he’ll always be venerated as “the Chosen One.” Maybe he needs to escape to Miami to become human again.

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I was profoundly moved by this incredible profile of film critic Roger Ebert, written by journalist Chris Jones for the latest issue of Esquire magazine. Ebert, you may know, can no longer eat, drink, or speak, due to a series of surgeries to combat cancer of the thyroid, salivary gland, and jaw. He communicates primarily through his writing and a computerized voice program. Yet, he is more full of joy and in tune with life than he’s ever been. As Jones observes about Ebert:

There has been no death-row conversion. He has not found God. He has been beaten in some ways. But his other senses have picked up since he lost his sense of taste. He has tuned better into life. Some things aren’t as important as they once were; some things are more important than ever. He has built for himself a new kind of universe. Roger Ebert is no mystic, but he knows things we don’t know.

Then Jones quotes this reflection from Ebert himself:

I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.

Ebert, the article says, is slowly dying. And he knows it. Yet the way he’s currently facing life certainly offers lessons on living for all of us.

I was reminded of a post that I wrote almost one year ago reflecting on the tenth anniversary of the death of Gene Siskel, Ebert’s famous partner in film criticism, and the wonderful though often combative friendship that they shared. Jones’s profile references Ebert’s poignant tribute to his late friend, and reading Jones’s article caused me to go back and re-read Ebert’s piece, too. It was time well spent.

I don’t always know exactly what to do after reading stories as heartrending as Jones’s profile of Ebert, or Ebert’s own written memories of Siskel. But I do appreciate Mr. Ebert’s insight: “We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try.”

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Many of you have probably noticed that I haven’t posted in a while. This became especially embarrassing when I was informed last week that Reconciliation Blog had been named to “The 50 Top Evangelical Christian Blogs” by the Biblical Learning Blog. So, I figured I should try to work my way back into that blogging rhythm. Truth is, I get tired of writing about race all the time. That’s why I took a pass on some of the recent race-related incidents, including Harry Reid’s awkward comments and the whole Blind Side debate (which inspired an excellent commentary from my friend Joshua Canada, by the way).

Anyway, I’m not feeling especially insightful right now, so allow me to indulge my bent for nostalgia again. Ever since I turned 40 last year, I’ve found myself spending more and more time reflecting on the music, movies, and TV programs of bygone eras. Some of you might remember my Hee Haw post from last year as a prime example. Lately, I’ve been flashing back to that iconic Generation-X childhood favorite School House Rock! In fact, I’ve been driving my wife and kids crazy singing and humming various tunes from that classic Saturday-morning series of educational shorts. I’m sure our teachers were helpful, but come on–how many of us actually learned our grammar, math facts, astronomy, and American history from “Conjunction Junction,” “My Hero, Zero,” “Interplanet Janet,” and “No More Kings”?

But here’s the thing: I’d argue that School House Rock was not only educational academically; it also was a great example of racial and cultural reconciliation in action on television. Like Sesame Street and The Electric Company before it, School House Rock reflected the diversity of America, both through its wonderful music and animated characters, who comprised a colorful swath of races and ethnicities. The song “The Great American Melting Pot,” with its mellow Karen Carpenter-esque vocals, even spoke about the importance of that diversity. (On the negative side, I think one of the glaring omissions in the SHR catalog is an honest overview of both the history of the Native American people in this country and the civil rights movement; I guess the early ’70s was still too soon to tackle these thorny subjects on Saturday-morning television.)

I loved that the SHR songs — which were written and performed by an exceptional team of musicians (most notably, Bob Dorough and Lynn Ahrens) — experimented with pop, blues, jazz, folk, country, and other musical genres. In all honesty, the “Rock” in the title was only true in the loosest sense of the term. Still, SHR is a nice reminder of the days before extreme niche programming, back when a single radio station could play everything from Frank Sinatra and Marvin Gaye to Tammy Wynette and Aerosmith.

School House Rock also allowed occasional nods to the Bible and Christian culture. For instance, many of the songs featured gospel-flavored idioms. Check out the use of the Noah’s ark story in “Elementary, My Dear,” as well as that song’s “gospelly” vamp.

I know I’m not alone in my affection for School House Rock, so I thought I’d try something different here at Reconciliation Blog and offer up my personal list of the Top 10 SHR songs. These kinds of lists are subjective by design, and they often rile up those who think “this” or “that” should’ve been included or left off. But that’s all part of the fun, isn’t it? So, here we go — my roundup of “the best” School House Rock songs. Once you’re done reading and listening, please feel free to share your own lists — or to tear mine to shreds. Or both.

#10 Sufferin’ Till Suffrage
Not only did this one firmly lodge in my mind the helpful fact that women gained the right to vote in 1920 through the 19th Amendment, it’s also a jazzy tune that reminds me (both in musical style and feminist swagger) of Donny Hathaway’s great theme to the classic sitcom Maude.

#9 Verbs: That’s What’s Happening
Ah, now this was perhaps the funkiest of the School House Rock tunes. I mean, this one is full-throttle ‘70s groove. Plus, it painted a positive picture of an urban neighborhood that still had its own movie theater where kids could go see matinees by themselves, and then run home to the loving arms of their parents. When I was 6, I wanted to live in this community.

#8 The Preamble
This one makes my list simply for the fact that it, probably more than anything else, helped me pass my junior high Constitution test. And I know I wasn’t the only one that used this song’s catchy, banjo-driven tune to help me memorize the “We the People” preamble.

#7 Three Is a Magic Number
Such a sweet song this one is. I used to love how it talked about “faith and hope and charity,” while featuring that precious portrait of “a man and a woman” who “had a little baby … they had three in the family.” There’s also an interesting reference to the “ancient” and “mystical” Trinity.

#6 Interjections!
I love the voice of Essra Mohawk, who sang this one, as well as “Sufferin’ Till Suffrage.” The song also has that Handel’s Messiah vibe, with its exuberant chant of “Hallelujahs” as its coda. I always could relate to the little girl at the episode’s close who would bemoan, “Darn! That’s the end!” I, too, wanted the song to go on and on.

#5 Figure Eight
Like the Charlie Brown TV specials, and Vince Guaraldi’s accompanying scores, there was always something just a little melancholy about many of the SHR songs. For me, this one was the most introspective and melancholy of them all. Being a mildly melancholy kid, I loved it. What’s more, I still hear Blossom Dearie’s breathy and delicate vocals in my head whenever I’m doing math that involves multiples of eight.

#4 Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla
A great song featuring Latino characters and their busload of kangaroos, aardvarks, and rhinoceroses. The narrator, Albert Andreas Armadillo, presents the strange case of Rufus Xavier Sarsaprilla and his sister, Rafaella Gabriela Sarsaparilla, and demonstrates quite convincingly how pronouns make our lives easier.

#3 Naughty Number Nine
This has to be the bluesiest of the SHR songs. Put your headphones on and listen to the jazzy horn section, the mellow bass, and the rich vocals by Grady Tate, the veteran jazz musician who also teaches at Howard University.

#2 I’m Just a Bill
I used to always think this one, along with “Conjunction Junction” and a few others, was sung by Ray Charles. Only years later did I discover that the actual vocalist is a white singer and actor named Jack Sheldon. His is one of the most soulfully distinctive of the SHR voices, and this song gave many of us a running start for our U.S. Government classes in high school. Maybe this should be required viewing for some of our current lawmakers.

# 1 Little Twelvetoes
I know this isn’t among the most popular SHR songs. I personally never cared for this one as a kid; however, my appreciation for the lyrical depth and musical sophistication of this song has grown over the years. There’s something both progressive and psychedelic about this one. I hear traces of Jimi Hendrix, Steely Dan, and Pink Floyd. For me, this song above all the others demonstrates how musically serious the SHR songs were. Even though they were primarily writing for grade-schoolers, Bob Dorough and the other composers never assumed that their listeners were too young to appreciate clever and complex musical arrangements. There’s also an underlying message in this song, I believe, about celebrating our diversity, sharing our gifts with others, and recognizing the value of those who might be different from us.

Well, I could easily list another 10 SHR songs, but I’ll leave this as my best-of. Agree? Disagree? Let me know what you think.

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Time magazine’s January 11 issue hit newsstands last week with a compelling teaser on its cover: “How Megachurches Are Helping Bridge America’s Racial Divide.” Soon, emails and Facebook updates from friends alerted me to the article and urged me to check it out. A Time report on Christians and the racial divide? This was a big deal.

Racial reconciliation among evangelicals is one of those topics that come and go based on who’s currently talking it up. Back in the mid-1990s, when groups like the Southern Baptists, Pentecostals, and the Promise Keepers men’s ministry were on the reconciliation bandwagon, it was all the rage. But Christians who are engaged in race and justice issues on a daily basis know that these periods of heightened interest typically fade after people lose that initial “we are one” buzz.

Almost a decade ago (yikes!), when I worked at Christianity Today, we convened a forum of Christian leaders to discuss the then-controversial findings of the just-released book Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America by sociologists Michael Emerson and Christian Smith. The book’s thesis, as we summarized it then: Most white evangelicals deny the existence of any ongoing racial problem in the U.S., and many blame the media and African Americans who refuse to forget the past for any lingering racial conflict. And then the whopper: Evangelical theology, with its individualized worldview, actually hinders our progress toward racial reconciliation and social justice in America. Emerson and Smith’s work arguably did more to elevate the conversation about race among white evangelicals than any other book over the last 40 years.

In my own book on Christians and race, I wrote about the significance of Divided by Faith and how it challenged and inspired countless Christian leaders, including, most famously, Willow Creek Community Church’s founding pastor Bill Hybels. That a book on race could actually transform the thinking of one of the nation’s most influential evangelical pastors says a lot, so it wasn’t surprising to see Time magazine pick up on the story too.

David Van Biema

I was a bit taken aback when Time‘s religion writer David Van Biema called me out of the blue last year to pick my brain on the “desegregation of evangelical megachurch” theme around which his article was taking shape. I initially pushed him to consider the many smaller churches and ministries that had been intentionally pursuing racial reconciliation and diversity long before the ideas showed up on Willow Creek’s radar screen. I suggested that any increase in racial diversity at megachurches like Willow is probably due more to the changing demographics of the suburbs, with their growing numbers of middle-class African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans. My theory was that it’s not so much that the megachurches are becoming more intentional about race but that they just naturally offer large, neutral settings for middle-class minorities who don’t feel entirely comfortable in ethnic-specific churches, but who would feel out of place in smaller, all-white congregations as well. The size and seeker-friendly nature of megachurches make them ideal places for minority Christians to just become a part of the scenery (i.e. community) without any pressure to be that church’s representative “black family” or “Latino family.” While I think this is still a large part of what’s happening with the increasing racial diversity in big evangelical churches, I realize that there are many other factors at play as well. And I applaud David for taking on the huge task of exploring this phenomenon.   

With the Time article reviving the race conversation among evangelicals (at least for another week or so), I thought it would be interesting to chat with David about his article and what he learned, as an impartial observer, about the evangelical community and race. Check out my interview with him at UrbanFaith.com, then come on back and let me know what you think about some of the issues David’s article raises.

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