New Essay at Patheos – Religious At The Back of The Bus: An Interview with Rev. Jesse Jackson

For Patheos‘  feature on the 50th anniversary of the march on Selma – the real birth of American democracy – I interviewed Rev. Jesse Jackson about his Christian faith, the history of the religion, and how he applies his own spiritual devotion to his political activism and civil rights leadership.

From the essay:

The central problem of American politics and culture predates the country’s existence by nearly two thousand years. It is the same conflict at the heart of a close cousin to the American experience.

Sitting in the office of Jesse Jackson, whose political activism and civil rights leadership often cause people to forget he was first and is still an ordained minister, easily becomes a church experience when he launches into a sermon. All I needed to do was remind him of the topic of our interview (religion in America), and he transformed his desk into a pulpit and my chair into a pew, giving a homespun homily connecting religion with politics, theology with culture, and the past with the present.

Read Rev. Jackson’s profound insights and the rest of the essay at Patheos.
<> on March 25, 2012 in Sanford, Florida.

New Essay at The Daily Beast – “Where’s The Faith? Try Crime Novels”

In the fall, at the University of St. Francis, I will teach a course on crime literature and film noir. Too long relegated to the ghetto of “genre”, noir actually possesses deep and profound insights into human nature. Novelist James Lee Burke, the greatest contemporary practitioner of noir, said in an interview I conducted with him that he uses the word “noir” to capture a “Darwinian world in which all the parameters that we convince ourselves we obey and to which we conform have no existence at all.”

In my new essay for The Daily Beast, “Where’s The Faith? Try Crime Novels”, I write that “Crime and noir have always told the story of people who decide to cross an invisible but palpable moral line. It then measures the wreckage—physical, emotional, and spiritual—that results from the voluntary crossing over into another ethical universe—a colder, tougher, and uglier universe. These same questions haunt the tales of the Bible and the lives of the saints.”

OUT OF THE PAST / BUILD MY GALLOWS HIGHOne of my many intellectual obsessions is noir. Philosophically and stylistically it manages to capture the depths (depravity, weakness to temptation, lust for power, greed, and sex) and heights (heroism, enforcement of moral codes) of human nature through its tough themes and Jungian interplay of shadow and light.

In “Where’s The Faith?” I I weigh in on the ongoing literary discussion of whether or not God is dead in contemporary American literature. I submit that the most engaging and compelling themes of religion, spirituality, and morality are to be found in crime literature, especially that of Walter Mosley, Michael Connelly, and above all, James Lee Burke. The essay contains a quote from Burke that I obtained in an email interview for the article, and it offers new perspective on a smoldering literary debate.

New Column at PopMatters – Queen of Disco: The Legend of Sylvester

My new February column at PopMatters takes a biographical and analytical look at the life and career of Sylvester.

Sylvester was one of America’s greatest singers, and he, unfortunately, remains one of American music’s best kept secrets. He came up through the church and infused all his music with a gospel fire – from disco to jazz; from rock to soul.

subtlesubversion-sylvesterjames-500As mush as his music offers listeners enjoyment, his life offers Americans insight into courage, creativity, and integrity. Sylvester was flamboyantly gay, but did not quite fit into the gay minority. He was a transvestite, but did not quite fit into the transvestite minority. He was black, but did not quite fit into the black minority. He was a Christian, but did not quite fit into any Christian minority. He certainly never fit into any majority.

My new column – “Queen of Disco: The Legend of Sylvester” – tells the fascinating and moving story of Sylvester. Anyone interested in American music, unorthodox Christianity, or the development of social progress since the 1970s, should read it.

I discovered Sylvester’s music after watching a documentary on his life aired by the television network, TVOne. I’ve long been a fan of Prince, and after hearing Sylvester sing, scream, and shout in his trademark falsetto, I realized that Prince had been ripping off Sylvester’s vocal style for decades. Because of the obscurity of Sylvester, Prince was able to successfully pull of the heist, and escape from the scene of the crime, undetected.

A reader who follows some of my writing emailed me with surprise and confusion over where Sylvester fits into my musical palette. He seems like an unlikely choice thrown into the mix with John Mellencamp, Warren Haynes, and Bob Seger, but the most resonant lesson of Sylvester’s life is that an interesting person – and a good life – evades category.

Sylvester’s spirit spoke to me, and with a voice as beautiful and big as his, who could resist?

New Feature at The Daily Beast – “The Jesus Novels”

James Lee Burke said when I interviewed him, “Find a metaphysical story you like and stick with it.” I like the story of Jesus and I’m sticking with it. As much as it sustains, empowers, and inspires me, I often find fault with the Biblical rendering of the narrative. Norman Mailer had the same criticism, claiming that the story of the Christian Messiah simultaneously living as God and man was indeed the “greatest story ever told”, but that it was not told in the “greatest way.” Mailer’s Jesus novel, The Gospel According to the Son, in which Jesus tells his story in the first person is a book that I turn to more than the Synoptic Gospels. It is a book of mystery, majesty, and magic.

My newest feature for the Daily Beast is a short run down of some of the best and most interesting Jesus novels. I offer barely more than summary of each book, but the article gives a good introduction to readers looking to read the Jesus story as shaped by the delicate hand of the novelist. In addition to Mailer, I give Fulton J. Sheen, Anne Rice, and Nikos Kazantzakis the most praise. Deepak Chopra is not much of a novelist, but I also compliment his surprising, insightful, and unconventional effort of speculation on Jesus’ teenage years and twenties.

Jesus NovelsChristians looking for a reminder of the Jesus story’s power will find any of these novels a good place to start, and nonbelievers will also enjoy them. As I point out in the article, the Jesus novels provide “artistic means of accessing a tale containing all of the most effective tools of drama—pity, terror, sadness, heroism, tragedy, and redemption.”

November PopMatters Column – Takin’ It Easy For Us Sinners: The Dude and Jesus Christ

The Big Lebowski has become a true pop cultural phenomena across the world. Although the Cohen Brothers comic neo-noir did not achieve financial success at the box office upon release, it has acquired a massive following from millions of people, many of whom approach the movie and its protagonist – The Dude – with a healthy zealotry.

The movie is fun and funny, but it also contains deep and profound insights into many of the problems of American culture and Western capitalism, while it projects a Zen and, as I show in my new column for PopMatters, radically Christ-like alternative to American culture and Western capitalism.

No one understands the value and meaning of The Big Lebowski, that includes but goes beyond comic relief, better than Oliver Benjamin. Oliver is a brilliant author, entrepreneur, and philosopher who founded a religion called Dudeism. Dudeism encourages people to conduct their lives according the disorganized tenets of the Dude’s lifestyle. To many readers, this may sound amusing, but Oliver will provoke the mind and stir the soul with his usage of The Dude as a predicate for the advocacy of a freer and more peaceful life in which material goods do not take priority over spiritual contentment and emotional fulfillment.

I’ve written for the official website of Dudeism twice, and I also appear in an upcoming documentary on Oliver Benjamin and Dudeism (Directed by Italian filmmaker Thomas Fazi). Our most recent collaboration is on the book, Lebowski 101: Limber-minded Investigations into the Greatest Story Ever Blathered. The entertaining and enlightening book contains chapters written by different writers who philosophically examine some aspect of the classic movie.

I write a chapter identifying and interpreting the similarities between Jesus Christ and The Dude. Through quoting of scripture and recitation of commonly understood Biblical principles, I demonstrate that Jesus of Nazareth was an original Dude, and that Lebowski of Los Angeles, although not a practicing Christian,  is, in his own way and according to his own internal system of ethics, a practitioner of Jesus’ way and life. PopMatters has run my contribution to Lebowski 101 as my November column.

The essay also shows how orthodox Christianity, when properly understood, is radically opposed to American orthodoxy of exceptionalism, aggression abroad, and greed at home.

Too much pop culture references are done solely for the entertainment derived from ironic inside jokes. Oliver Benjamin, with Dudeism, has created a fun means of using pop culture to investigate serious issues of politics and philosophy. For that he deserves applause and respect, and for that reason, I’m happy to be a Christian Dudeist.

The Harmony: My Speaking Event at the University of Wisconsin

Dr. Craig Werner is a professor of African-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin who was written several books – two of which are essential to understanding the power of black music in American life: A Change is Gonna Come: Music, Race, and the Soul of America and Higher Ground: Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, and the Rise and Fall of American Soul.

Most of the courses he teaches are about black music and African-American literature, but right now he is offering a seminar on the music of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. Dr. Werner recently read my book, Working On a Dream: The Progressive Political Vision of Bruce Springsteen, along with the handful of articles I’ve written about Bob Dylan’s too often overlooked Christian music. He invited me to visit Madison, Wisconsin and speak to his students.

I was thrilled to accept the invitation. I arrived in Madison on Monday November 12th, and met with Dr. Werner for drinks at a local blues club called The Harmony Bar and Grill. After getting to know each other much of our conversation focused on the problems that result from contemporary culture’s insistence on compartmentalizing the human condition. There is a self-defeating tendency to separate the mind, body, and spirit into three independent entities when a realistic view of life and a healthy approach is to understand that the soul and the intellect – the spiritual and the sexual – are always interconnected. Life is at its best – its most terrifying and thrilling – when the interplay is at its most intense.

Dr. Werner’s book A Change is Gonna Come explains and articulates this idea with the predicate of black music in a way that provides new understanding, insight, and clairvoyance. In jazz, blues, and soul – from Ray Charles to Mary J. Blige – there exists the exercise of what Werner calls the “gospel impulse.”

Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan are rare in that they are white artists who imbue their work with the gospel impulse, and that they both submit everything to an ongoing process of sacralization. Springsteen often takes concepts from the Catholicism of his childhood and simply removes the capital letter. The phrase “sanctity of life” comes from the Catholic church, but Springsteen transforms the phrase into a catholic principle by making the body sacred, friendship sacred, community sacred, and sexuality sacred. The socio-spiritual quality of Bob Dylan’s Christian music – songs that divide between angry gospel and love songs to God – shows the same inspired and inspirational determination.

During my visit with the students I explained that one of the functions of great writers – whether they are working with a guitar or a notebook, a keyboard or a keypad – is to take something that everyone is thinking about and articulate it with a language that allows everyone to realize they’ve been thinking about it and then go out and talk about it.

Werner’s writing on the gospel impulse does exactly that. He defines it as “the belief that life’s burdens can be transformed into hope and salvation. It is the promise of redemption.” He goes on to elaborate:

At its best, the gospel impulse helps people experience themselves in relation to rather than on their own.  Gospel makes the feeling of human separateness, which is what the blues are all about, bearable.  It’s why DJs and the dancers they shape into momentary communities are telling the truth when they describe dance as a religious experience.

The gospel impulse half-remembers the values brought to the new world by the men and women uprooted from West African cultures:  the connection between the spiritual and material worlds; the interdependence of self and community; the honoring of the elders and the ancestors; the recognition of the ever-changing flow of experience that renders all absolute ideologies meaningless….

The gospel impulse consists of a three-step process:  (1) acknowledging the burden; (2) bearing witness; (3) finding redemption. The burden grounds the song in the history of suffering that links individual and community experiences….We don’t choose our burdens; we do choose our responses.

Musicians grounded in the gospel impulse respond by bearing witness to the troubles they’ve seen, telling the deepest truths they know….The word “witness” works partly because the burden involves history, power.  There’s an evil in the world and…lots of it comes from the Devil.  Call him sex or money, hypocrisy or capitalism, the landlord or Governor Wallace, but the Devil’s real.  You deal with him or he, maybe she, will most definitely deal with you…Gospel promises, or at least holds out the possibility, that tomorrow may be different, better…Whatever its specific incarnation, gospel redemption breaks down the difference between personal salvation and communal liberation.  No one makes it alone.  If we’re going to bear up under the weight of the cross, find the strength to renounce the Devil, if we’re going to survive to bear witness and move on up, we’re going to have to connect.  The music shows us how.

Without planning on it when I originally received the invitation to speak at the University of Wisconsin, I was able to add my own ornamentation to the tree that Werner built for his students. I played the Springsteen song “Human Touch” and discussed how, in the school of Al Green and Marvin Gaye, Springsteen presents sexuality as a sanctuary from a troubled world. It is not only physically stimulating, but also spiritually edifying. It is sacred – not a hedonistic tool used for manipulation that goes toward conquering another person for the purposes of your own pleasure nor a sacrifice made on the altar of a church’s doctrinal demand.

I also played “Shot of Love” by Bob Dylan and explained how it represents and expresses a form of spiritual combat. Surrounded by sin and social injustice, Dylan cries out that he needs a “shot of love” rather than submitting to the pressure to conform to a materialistic order or fighting fire with fire by engaging in the same kind of hate and hostility that he condemns. He has faith in God, but he isn’t optimistic: “What I got ain’t painful / It’s just bound to kill me dead / Like the men who followed Jesus when they put a price upon his head.”

I once watched Dr. Cornel West explain at St. Sabina Church on the southside of Chicago how listening to certain forms of music – blues, gospel – can make you a better person. I believe that is true, because I’m a product of it.

Conversation can also make us better – intellectually, spiritually, and morally. Dr. Werner’s contribution to a national conversation, and his inclusion of me in it, has made me better. I hope that my contribution to the conversation in his classroom has made his students better.

New Essay at Front Porch Republic: The Dangerous Alliance of Big Government and Big Business

In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, I often feel like a “man without a country.” I’m at odds with much of American culture, and am strongly opposed to much of American politics. Front Porch Republic – a website founded by the excellent writer, and fellow Gore Vidal admirer, Bill Kauffman – is the closest thing I have to a political and philosophical home.  Their “about” page summarizes their mission and position well:

The economic crisis that emerged in late 2008 and the predictable responses it elicited from those in power has served to highlight the extent to which concepts such as human scale, the distribution of power, and our responsibility to the future have been eliminated from the public conversation. It also threatens to worsen the political and economic centralization and atomization that have accompanied the century-long unholy marriage between consumer capitalism and the modern bureaucratic state. We live in a world characterized by a flattened culture and increasingly meaningless freedoms. Little regard is paid to the necessity for those overlapping local and regional groups, communities, and associations that provide a matrix for human flourishing. We’re in a bad way, and the spokesmen and spokeswomen of both our Left and our Right are, for the most part, seriously misguided in their attempts to provide diagnoses, let alone solutions.

Though there is plenty we disagree about, and each contributor can be expected to stand by the words of only his or her own posts, the folks gathered here more or less agree with the above assertions. We come from different backgrounds, live in different places, and have divergent interests, but we’re convinced that scale, place, self-government, sustainability, limits, and variety are key terms with which any fruitful debate about our corporate future must contend.

Most of the Front Porch Republicans are more conservative than I am on a bevy of issues, but we all share a fundamental distrust in centralized power. A philosophical cousin of the Front Porch Republican movement is the Catholic subsidiarity theory of governance, which Robert Barron explains well in this video:

A regular reader of mine once asked me in an email to give a succinct statement of political philosophy. Although, it is not perfect, I answered back with this: I have a Christian concentration on the neighbor and the stranger. I oppose large, unaccountable entities, such as big government and big business, that are forms of concentrated and centralized power, which rob from the individual and community, dignity and autonomy.

I believe the federal government and Welfare State have a helpful and important role to play in the creation of a fair and just society. Like Robert Barron, I believe that local control, neighborhood action, and individual autonomy are the ideals, but that some tasks are so large and complex that governmental intervention is necessary. Health care is an instructive example here. It seems obvious that the most efficient and most humane way to distribute medicinal resources and services across a sizable population is with federal government involvement. Even with all of its flaws, senior citizens prefer Medicare to the private insurance scheme. Mitt Romney and Barack Obama’s ongoing wrestling match to emerge as the champion of Medicare indicates as much.

That being said, I reject the popular political distinction between big government and big business. They are flipsides of the same coin. Bureaucrats and billionaires are aligned in the destruction of human scale community. The useless Democratic and Republican debate, along with the antiquated liberal and conservative divide,  obfuscates this reality, and it is the central reality of American life.

I make this point in my new essay for Front Porch Republic called “The Dangerous Alliance of Big Government and Big Business.” The essay – my fifth for Front Porch – largely wraps up my political philosophy, undresses both political parties as equal offenders, and includes a reference to a properly functioning and benevolent institution – The Rolling Stones (the underrated populist anthem, “Salt of the Earth”):

To illustrate my indictment of big government and big business collusion, I use the examples of eminent domain, the bailouts for “too big to fail” banks, the Prison-Industrial Complex, and the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). I also refer to the “export of big government and big business collusion” that comes in the form of defense contractors, private army firms, and massive Pentagon funding. I could have added student loans to the list. What else could anyone call them? Colleges charge burglarizing rates for admission, requiring students to incur staggering amounts of debt from student loans. After universities get their money, the students not only pay the government, but must do so with interest. If they fail to comply, the government will destroy their credit and garnish their wages.

Most political conversations – whether they take place on the equally nauseating networks of Fox or MSNBC – have little relevance or meaning for the average American. With my new essay, I attempt to contribute to the creation of a real conversation. Front Porch Republic is committed to this cause, and I’m proud to be part of it.

I Interview Best Selling Author and Noir Master James Lee Burke

James Lee Burke is one of the best writers in America, and one of the true masters of the crime novel. His stories about homicide detective and recovering alcoholic Dave Robicheaux, set in New Orleans and New Iberia, along with his books about Texas Sheriff Hackberry Holland, effortlessly weave noir, mysticism, and politics to present a panoramic view of the American flesh and the human spirit. The genre in which he casts his seductive spell may be crime, but his masterful prose and penetrating insight elevate his work far beyond any genre, making him a literary treasure.

I discovered James Lee Burke after watching the film In The Electric Mist, starring Tommy Lee Jones as Dave Robicheaux, and based on Burke’s novel, In The Electric Mist with the Confederate Dead. Within days, I was reading Burke’s books, and since then, I’ve devoured much of his bibliography. I’ve also enjoyed listening to a few of the books on CD. The narration of Will Patton, who has starred in such movies as The Client, The Postman, and Brooklyn’s Finest, makes Burke’s soaring prose seem as if it was written for the stage, and not the page.

I recently had the pleasure and privilege of talking on the phone with Burke for an hour and twenty minutes. Writers often acquire the reputation of being reclusive, inhospitable, and cantankerous. Burke, however, was a largehearted gentleman. Our conversation ran well over the thirty minutes arranged by his publisher, and much of that was due to his genuine interest in my interpretation of his work and my ideas regarding its dominant themes. The final twenty minutes of our discussion involved a role reversal in which he asked me questions about my work and my life.

Burke’s work is important, because it is high quality literature. Excellence and greatness provide their own justification. Anyone who reads the soul-stirring, thought-provoking, and heart-pounding stories of Burke will intuitively understand how he fulfills the calling of the artist and strengthens his medium.

There is another component of importance to Burke’s novels, however, and it centers on the unique vision of life – especially American life – he brings to bear on modernity. The American Empire is collapsing, and the American economy is crashing. Burke surveys his surroundings, and righteously responds with a Leftist Christianity that, somehow without paradox, blends realism with mysticism. His voice is one calling for justice in the face of widespread exploitation of the poor, the environment, and weak by the powerful forces of greed, cruelty, and iniquity.

The Los Angeles Review of Books – a fine literary publication – allowed Burke and me to explore his career, philosophy, and vision of America by taking a journey into what I call the “noir mystic.” Asking Burke good questions was easy. Reading his work sharpens the mind. Burke’s answers make the interview, titled “Into The Noir Mystic: A Conversation about Injustice, Evil, and Redemption with James Lee Burke”, essential reading. In addition to his own work, we discuss how the U.S. government – at the state and federal levels – has become a distributor of vice, war, Christianity, the increasingly hostile character of American life, and the loss of “Edenic America.”