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 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.