On the Newsstand

So this is kind of exciting. My first magazine piece hits the newsstands today. It’s also available online.

When I was contacted by an editor at Sojourners a couple months ago and invited to contribute to their Culture Watch section, I  felt some ambivalence about the offer. Mostly I worried I would be asked to review mainstream films. I have no interest in mainstream films, and, to be perfectly blunt, I don’t like “reviews.” They seem unnecessary to me. In this age of Rotten Tomatoes, when critical consensus can be compiled, tabulated, and spewed forth in real-time, reviewing has become boring and formulaic — a catchy lead, a plot summary, a tip of the hat to the performances and direction, and, finally, a recommendation. Whether it’s a positive or negative recommendation is almost beside the point. With very few exceptions, popular reviews, along with the requisite celebrity profiles and interviews, are indistinguishable from the general din of marketing noise.

I’ve always considered my film responses here to be, well, “long pauses” — that is, a somewhat disciplined attempt to sit quietly and meditate on my experience with a particular text. Doing so has freed me to write only about films that, for any number of reasons, “justify” the time, energy, and contemplation that I devote to them. I’ll even go a step further and admit that, by most standards, I’m not even a movie buff. I don’t have much of an attention span these days, and sitting down for two hours often feels like a chore.

What I do love, though, is to be engaged in good conversation. Conversation that values beauty and curiosity and empathy and intelligence. Conversation that is genuinely interested in the strangeness of human emotion and faith and culture and experience. And that, I think, is where criticism should find its voice. That’s my goal, at least. To be in conversation with artists whose creative imaginations are large and complex and varied. And I consider it the great responsibility of the critic to be up to that challenge. Work, brother. Work.

Which brings me to the other source of my ambivalence about writing for Sojourners, which is simply this: What does it mean to be a Christian cultural critic? And, more to the point: What does it mean to so publicly out oneself as a Christian in “moral values” America, where religion and political ideology have spawned such head-shaking horrors? (Notice my shift to the formal third person there? It’s easier that way. Less inflammatory.)

Most of my doubts were lifted when I saw Jim Wallis on The Daily Show. Wallis, the founder of Sojourners, has been out pushing his new book, God’s Politics, and seeing him was a much-needed reminder of what evangelical Christianity can look like. The rest of my doubts faded when it occurred to me that being a Christian cultural critic means taking long pauses and that this site has, from the very start, been some kind of an attempt to answer those very questions.

Oddly enough, the editor and I were in total agreement, and I’m pleased to say that my first piece for Sojourners, a 1,000-word introduction to the films of John Cassavetes, would not be at all out of place here on Long Pauses. Hopefully they’ll let me do it again someday.