By Debie Thomas

Two lines in this week’s Gospel reading stand out to me. Both refer to the people who encounter Jesus’s Sabbath teaching in the synagogue: “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority,” and, “They were all amazed and kept asking one another, ‘What is this?’”

They were astounded. They were amazed. Can you relate? When was the last time Jesus astounded and amazed you? Can you recall a time in the recent past when the presence of God in your life caught your attention and held it? …


By Dan Clendenin

Kevin Young, editor, African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song (New York: The Library of America, 2020), 1110pp.

Monumental and rapturous. Indispensable. The most ambitious volume of its kind. A landmark literary event. A historic achievement. These are just a few examples of the effusive praise for this anthology of poetry collected by Kevin Young of the New York Public Library. The project took Young six years. The book was on at least a dozen “Best of 2020” lists, including the single best book of the year by Esquire.

After a twenty-page introduction, Young organizes this trove of 250 authors and 670 poems into eight chronological sections. Except for the first section that by necessity is chronological, the poets in the other seven sections appear alphabetically. He begins with Phyllis Wheatley (1753–1784), whose first and only book of poetry, a compilation of thirty-nine poems, was entitled Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773), and published in London before the founding of the United States. Wheatley was the first African American to publish a book of poetry, and the first woman of any race to publish a book in America. He includes well-known luminaries like Maya Angelou, Paul Beatty, WEB Du Bois, Marilyn Nelson, Alice Walker, and Richard Wright. Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks (16 poems each) were the most represented poets. The vast majority of the poets and poems, though, are selections that will be new to almost all readers except the experts, and that might be the volume’s most important contribution. Movements like the Harlem Renaissance and historical events like the murder of Emmett Till fill the volume. The book concludes with four appendices: biographical notes, notes on the texts, footnotes, and then an index of poets, titles, and first lines. …


By Dan Clendenin

A Hidden Life (2019)

Terrence Malick’s newest film marks a radical departure from his previous work. A Hidden Life was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the 2019 Cannes film festival. And for those who have long wondered whether the famously private Malick is a Christian, A Hidden Life will provide more grist for the mill.

Malick’s recent trilogy of films explored the lives of what you might call Hollywood hipsters. These people are young, attractive, wealthy, and decidedly secular. Their lives look fun. They make your own life feel dull and boring. You almost envy them. In Knight of Cups (2015), a self-indulgent LA screen writer drifts through the movie staring into space and searching for some meaning. Song to Song (2017) follows two couples in Austin, Texas, who specialize in hedonistic excess. …


By Dan Clendenin

Richard Haass, The World: A Brief Introduction (New York: Penguin, 2020), 378pp.

For almost forty years, Richard Haass has distinguished himself as one of America’s foreign policy experts. He earned his PhD at Oxford and has authored or edited fifteen books. He’s advised administrations in both parties. Since 2003 he has been president of the non-partisan Council on Foreign Relations. In a previous book called Foreign Policy Begins at Home (2013), he argued that the biggest threats to America are domestic rather than international. …


By Dan Clendenin

Imagine a government program that required every house to have a bar code, or to download compulsory software in order for your cell phone to work. Imagine software that knew if you are a good credit risk based upon how often you charge your phone battery. Imagine being able to predict breast cancer or how you will vote with near perfect accuracy. And those 18-wheeler trucks with no drivers? That’s already here. For those of us who are non-technical people, this two-hour PBS Frontline documentary is an excellent if terrifying introduction to the “promise and perils” of artificial intelligence. AI is here to stay, and like all technology, it is a one-way street of increasing complexity, power, and effectiveness. This movie considers AI through five stories. There’s China’s determination to lead the AI world by 2030. The second story explores the “profoundly good news” of how AI offers “terrific solutions to urgent problems.” A third chapter looks at Saginaw, Michigan, as one example of the massive disruptions in work caused by AI — disruptions that are qualitatively different than in past history, and on a par with the advent of the steam engine, electricity, and the computer. The last two stories are the most troubling: surveillance capitalism and the surveillance state. …


By Debie Thomas

I’m struggling to write this week. Sitting at my desk two days after a violent, seditious mob stormed the U.S Capitol Building at the incitement of America’s sitting president, I confess that returning to “business as usual” is difficult.

Like many of you, I am heartbroken. On the one hand, I can’t believe what my eyes witnessed on my television screen two days ago. On the other hand, I know full well that what happened in Washington, D.C was a predictable outcome of a long and reckless disregard for the truth. This is what happens when a leader and his people desecrate reality. This is what happens when human beings worship falsehood for their own convenience and gain. I know that it has become a cliché to say we live in a post-truth society — as if “post-truth” is a viable option for our survival, going forward. But the fact is, it matters what our eyes see. It matters what we apprehend as the real, the genuine, and the faithful. …


By Dan Clendenin

Rothko: Pictures Must Be Miraculous (2019)

This one-hour PBS biographical documentary opens with an improbable event in 2012: the day Mark Rothko’s “Orange, Red, Yellow” (1961) sold for $87 million, which at the time was the highest price ever paid for a post-war painting in the world. “I think he would have been appalled,” says his daughter Kate, who with her brother Christopher narrates much of this film about their father. Markus Yakovlevich Rothkowitz (1903–1970) was born into what is now Latvia (at the time part of the Russian Empire), and immigrated to the United States when he was ten. He earned a full scholarship to Yale, but dropped out his sophomore year and moved to New York City. For the first twenty-five years of his career, his son recalls, all his work was done at nights and on weekends, for he had a day job as a teacher. But around 1950, he and a few other painters (Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning) pioneered what became known as abstract expressionism, a movement that effectively moved the center of the art world from Paris to New York. He had finally found his own artistic voice, and what became one of the most recognized artistic styles ever — his color blocks, which look like deceptively simple rectangles. The title of the film comes from a Rothko quote: “a painting must be miraculous.” …


By Dan Clendenin

***

For January and February JWJ will feature a two-part interview with Paul Farmer by Amy Goodman from the online version of Democracy Now! (December 4, 2020). I have edited the interview slightly.

***

As the United States sets new records for COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations, we speak with one of the world’s leading experts on infectious diseases, Dr. Paul Farmer, who says the devastating death toll in the U.S. reflects decades of underinvestment in public health and centuries of social inequality. “All the social pathologies of our nation come to the fore during epidemics,” says Dr. …


By Michael Fitzpatrick

Michael Fitzpatrick is a parishioner at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Palo Alto, CA. After growing up in the rural northwest, he served over five years in the U. S. Army as a Chaplain’s Assistant, including two deployments to Iraq. After completing his military service, Michael has done graduate work in literature and philosophy. He is now finishing his PhD at Stanford University.

January 3rd, 2021 is the tenth day of Christmastide, the “twelve days of Christmas” so famously full of gold rings, various fowl, and a solitary pear tree. In my household we adore Christmas movies, and a common ritual during Christmastide is to watch Christmas movies each day until Epiphany. One of my absolute favorites is the film Joyeux Noël, French for “merry Christmas.” Its fictional characters capture true events on a fateful Christmas Eve in the first year of World War I. …


By Debie Thomas

If I asked you to describe the sacrament of baptism, what adjectives would you choose? Beautiful? Solemn? Ancient? Holy? Maybe you’d describe sculpted marble fonts, lacy christening gowns, wiggly babies, and delighted godparents. But would my question prompt you to use the word “wild?” As in: baptism is one of the wildest things Christians do? Has it ever occurred to you that this watery, two-thousand-year-old ritual of the Church is wild?

On this first Sunday after the Epiphany, the lectionary invites us to witness Jesus’s baptism, and reflect on our own. But the language the Scriptures give us is not the language of churchy decorum. It is feral language. …

Dan Clendenin

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