For each day of Twelvetide, Christ and Pop Culture writers will point to some of the cultural goodness that gives hope in the midst of life’s messyness. It’s our version of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” song, filled with things our writers have found to be life-giving. Some entries are 2018 artifacts, some are from years past. All of them point us to hope.
This year, we’ve had more than our share of trials: the contentious 2016 election continues to reverberate, with negative repercussions landing daily; the #MeToo movement, far from ending, persists in exposing those who have abused their power over the vulnerable; mass shootings plague us weekly, sometimes daily. Twenty-eighteen also unleashed the devastating destruction of California’s Camp Fire, revealed an epidemic of loneliness, and highlighted a crisis of opioid addiction wreaking havoc far and wide.
Five needful words—all offering hope and redemption for these troubled times, but all steeling us for the difficult and sometimes painful challenge of enacting that healing.We are a people desperate for good news, for the promise of justice in an unjust world, resurrection in the face of death, and love that eclipses hate. The right word, spoken at the right time, can incarnate that promise and actualize that hope; it can bolster our confidence in goodness and even allow us to experience a taste of redemption. Proverbs 16:24 affirms and embodies this truth: “Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.”
We’ve all experienced this personally in our own lives, with a friend consoling us, an adversary offering absolution, a trusted counselor dispensing hard-won wisdom. Sometimes we get to experience it collectively, too, as public figures give voice to our wide-ranging challenges and offer a positive way forward. This past year, five people in particular stand out as offering especially needful words for our troubled times. From abuse survivor to actor, congressman-elect to first lady to anti-bullying advocate, each vividly illustrates that a word fitly spoken truly is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.
No matter the cost, it was right – Rachael Denhollander
The first of Larry Nassar’s victims to accuse him publicly, Rachael Denhollander was the last to speak at the disgraced doctor’s sentencing hearing this past January. Her testimony quickly spread, with so many—me included—stunned by her moral clarity, fierce conviction, and heartrending grace. What grabbed headlines and fed the social media frenzy was Denhollander’s clear articulation of the gospel, especially because embedded in that message was the word of forgiveness she offered to her abuser.
Denhollander’s statement really was thing of beauty; after a week of testimony by survivor after survivor detailing the devastation Nassar’s abuse cost them, Denhollander reminded us all of God’s supernatural work in the Christian’s life to heal, redeem, and restore. In word and deed Rachael preached that day: she spoke of a God who rescues us from whatever evil man inflicts. She may still be on her journey toward that complete healing, but while I watched her speak, I had a hard time imagining a more compelling spokeswoman to recommend that path.
Denhollander’s message remains an antidote to both Pollyannaish easy “forgivism” and exacting condemnation. Her prophetic words make clear the damage of abuse, the machinations of abusers, and the tragic complicity of many institutions. In so doing, she underscores the heavy cost of setting things right yet still charges us to do so by embracing truth, living with courage, and defending the helpless. In her beautiful words, she has shown us how.
Honoring the dignity of work and the dignity of the working person – Geoffrey Owens
Geoffrey Owens is best known for his role as Elvin Tibideaux, son-in-law to the Huxtables on The Cosby Show. But this summer he was thrust into the internet limelight for another reason, after a British tabloid published photos of him cashiering at a New Jersey’s Trader Joe’s. Fox News picked up the story, making it go viral. Both versions depicted Owens as a fallen star, cast from the heights of fame and Hollywood glamour to the degradations of workaday drudgery (“From learning lines to serving the long line!” was the Daily Mail headline).
Karma Lawrence, the woman who took the picture, said she was shocked to see Owens doing this unexpected job and wanted to share her surprise with other fans of the show. What Lawrence saw as surprising, the tabloid played up as shameful. Highlighting the average pay of Trader Joe’s cashiers ($11/hour), emphasizing the stains on Owens’s shirt, and calling attention to his nametag (despite that a nametag is quite typical for such a job), the story encouraged mockery from its readers. Understandably, there was a lot of pushback in Owens’s defense, much of it scathing.
When Owens finally spoke out, to Chloe Melas of CNN, he took the opportunity to remind us of truths we all know but fail to live by: that honest work of whatever kind is valuable, that no matter their station in life human beings should be treated with dignity, and that others are not commodities to be used. His gracious, redemptive response promoted these truths without repaying the shame heaped on him but instead turned away wrath. That news cycle passed quickly, but we can hope that Owens’s poignant lesson will stick with us much longer.
Americans can forgive one another – Dan Crenshaw
The humor of Saturday Night Live is often hit or miss, usually harmlessly so. But because its subject matter is often hot-button social issues, SNL’s missteps can create a firestorm (just ask Tina Fey). Pete Davidson found himself at the losing end of this comedy calculus after mocking then-candidate-for-Congress (now congressman-elect) Dan Crenshaw, a Navy SEAL who lost his eye after being hit by an explosion in Afghanistan. What Davidson said was truly cringe-worthy in light of Crenshaw’s sacrifice (“You may be surprised to hear he’s a congressional candidate from Texas, and not a hitman in a porno movie.”), and predictably the Twitterverse pounced, with demands for an apology and even calls for Davidson’s immediate dismissal.
Crenshaw, for his part, took another tack. His first response to the skit was a judicious tweet that avoided either dismissal or outrage. Instead, it threaded the needle between obligation and expectation, offense and self-control; it called us all to heed our better angels:
Good rule in life: I try hard not to offend; I try harder not to be offended. That being said, I hope @nbcsnl recognizes that vets don’t deserve to see their wounds used as punchlines for bad jokes.
— Dan Crenshaw (@DanCrenshawTX) November 4, 2018
But Crenshaw’s real peacemaking moment came when he appeared on SNL the following Saturday, Veteran’s Day weekend appropriately enough. Not only did the segment allow Davidson an opportunity to apologize to Crenshaw publicly, an apology offered not coerced; it was downright funny, showing how humor can be used to heal and to unite. Crenshaw’s participation invited the country to lightheartedly scapegoat Davidson, providing a needed and (more importantly) a harmless release valve for our pent-up anger whose source is much deeper than SNL’s blunder.
The most valuable aspect of Crenshaw’s appearance, however, is the one that has gotten the least press: his recognition of Davidson’s father, a New York City firefighter who lost his life in the September 11 terrorist attacks, the catalyst for the war in which Crenshaw was injured. This touching final moment, of an already powerful encounter, highlighted the invisible threads that do indeed bind us all. May we follow Crenshaw’s example (even still) and tend to these fragile threads for our mutual good.
Just a disagreement – Michelle Obama
The friendship between Michelle Obama and George W. Bush is heartwarming, almost fabled in these troubled political times. As the 2016 presidential election reached a fever pitch at the end of September, the Bushes and Obamas came together for the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture; it was the perfect time for the perfect picture of a perfect embrace, Michelle warmly wrapping her arms around W., George leaning in. And of course the image went viral. Since then, we have witnessed, and been delighted by, several sweet moments between the two at public gatherings. He passed her a cough drop during the funeral of John McCain and followed up with a candy or mint at his father’s funeral earlier this month.
These are small gestures, to be sure, and it’s easy to be cynical about their import. Yes, politics can be hyper-partisan, and many see it as a scorched-earth, zero-sum game, where there are clear winners and losers. But at their best, political convictions stem from deeply held values that those who hold them have worked out to their practical implications and real-world applications. In other words, our political differences matter, and seeing such affection in the relationship between Obama and Bush—whose political stances diverge so sharply—can be unsettling, forcing fans of either figure to confront their assumptions about the other and to take stock of their ultimate aims and how best to achieve them. It is much simpler to idolize or demonize, but simpler doesn’t really get us to our goals and the obstinate other must always be reckoned with.
Obama herself provides a framework for undertaking this difficult task of engaging and even working with those who see the world differently from us. In an interview with Jenna Hager, Bush’s daughter, Obama suggests that bipartisanship is nearly impossible in a world where nastiness sells. What good can be done cooperatively if each side thinks the other simply evil or stupid? Pushing back against that, though, requires not ignoring or eliminating our differences but ratcheting down the (sadly common) inflammatory rhetoric and remembering our commonalities, even appreciating the other. Michelle Obama has graciously led the way.
Exactly where we need to start to heal – Monica Lewinsky
There’s a lot of wisdom in Faulkner’s famous quip, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” A&E’s new docuseries The Clinton Affair offers compelling support for that claim, as it unearths the twenty-year-old scandal and highlights just how much our current moment has been shaped by that time. Political power grabs, corruption, exploitation, deceit, betrayal, an onslaught of media voyeurism: the details may have changed, but the general trends remain the same. Revisiting that era can help us gain a better vantage point on our own, and in her contributions to the project, Monica Lewinsky proves to be one of our best guides.
In her recent piece for Vanity Fair, Lewinsky explained why she would willingly choose to return to the most devastating time of her life, a time when she was too young to really understand what she had gotten herself into, too vulnerable to protect herself from the powerful people and institutions who sought to use her for their own ends, and too emotionally invested to be able to judge the situation rightly and see her way forward. For empowerment, comes the answer—though she doesn’t use that word. She participated in the documentary to empower herself by speaking the unvarnished truth on her own terms and to empower others with the penetrating insights gained from the difficult experience and its long aftermath.
It’s a tricky balance Lewinsky walks, both in the series and in her Vanity Fair piece; she owns her failings while acknowledging her naivety—regarding Bill Clinton, regarding Linda Tripp, regarding the DOJ, regarding her own legal counsel, regarding the media. Although she never asks for pity or claims victimhood, Lewinsky still manages to provoke the viewer’s sympathy. The degrading, cartoonish depictions of Lewinsky fall away in the face of the real person processing her real suffering. Her account pricks our conscience about those today that we might rush to caricature. Lewinsky’s essay explains that she needed to revisit her painful past, “to acknowledge to myself past behavior that I still regret and feel ashamed of” in order to heal; we find in watching her do so, that we, too, still have much to learn.
The tongue of the wise brings healing – Proverbs 12:18
Five needful words—all offering hope and redemption for these troubled times, but all steeling us for the difficult and sometimes painful challenge of enacting that healing. Amid the upheaval of 2018 there have been many others sharing the same message. This Christmastime, as we reflect on the Word made flesh who dwelt among us and made possible our salvation, may we have ears to hear echoes of that Word in the voices of those around us. Even better, may we speak these words ourselves.