DEWEY: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World, by Vicki Myron with Bret Witter (2008) New York:Grand Central Publishing. ISBN: 0-446-40741-0 (265 pp.) plus Epilogue (5 pp.)
If you are a sucker for wonderful and true animal stories, as I am, here is a book for you. DEWEY is the story of a little kitten who was found in the return books box one morning in the public library of Spencer, Iowa. He had been stuffed into the return books slot of the library the night before. Initially he caused quite a stir because no one knew where he came from nor what to do with him. He had frost-bitten feet and looked as if he had been on his own for a while. Quickly he won the hearts of staff, but the discouraging question remained: Where could he live? After many housing plans and many disappointments, Dewey became the library cat and was named Dewey Readmore Books. In this book you can follow his adventures and the people’s fun, as well as Dewey’s therapeutic skills with some of the children who frequented the library. Despite his unpromising beginning, he lived a good long life and had many library adventures, warming the hearts of many, including even people who weren’t so sure of his lovability. This is a wonderful book and would be especially good for reading with children who are just embarking on “chapter books”. Nightly reading with children is a wonderful habit to cultivate and this would be a fun book for both parents and children. Of course, the end of the book is sad. No one can live forever, not even special cats. This book can help to open up conversations about death and the meaning of life. What do you think life is all about, anyway? I recommend this book very highly to families as well as to anyone who enjoys a cats’ particular perspective on life and its challenges.
THE GOLDEN SPRUCE: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed, by John Vaillant (2005). New York: W. W. Norton. ISBN: 0-393-05887-5 (232 pp.) plus Epilogue (9 pp.) Endnotes (7 pp) and Bibliography (6 pp.)
Logging is a dangerous activity, even more dangerous than fishing. One particular cutting in Canada’s great northern forest, however, was especially the center of danger and intrigue. You may remember the mysterious destruction of a sacred tree (1997) belonging to the Haida. The tree was located on Haida Gwaii in the Queen Charlotte Islands, off the coast of British Columbia. It was cut down in an unfathomable act of protest which sent shock waves through the local community. “It was like a drive-by shooting in a small town” said one long time resident.
This tree was very special. It grew deep in the forest, in a difficult to reach location. It stood 165 feet tall and was about 300 years old. While it was only a medium-sized Sitka spruce, it was special because, mysteriously, it was covered with luminous golden needles. It was an awesome sight for those lucky enough to see it. To the Haida, it was sacred.
Vaillant skillfully traces some of the history of the Haida and of the logging business and of some of the discontent amongst forestry workers. The slaughter of the tree was committed by one white man, a “feller” in lumbermen’s terminology, in an act of protest, which seems to have been directed toward forestry academics, not toward the Haida themselves. His concern was the total forest: “When society places so much value on one mutant tree and ignores what happens to the rest of the forest, it’s not the person who points this out who should be labeled,” he stated. .
This book is well researched and well written. It provides the reader with an insider’s view of the logging business, its dangers, and its rewards, and who it is that experiences these. It is a true adventure book, full of mystery and intrigue. I heartily recommend it to all readers, especially those who love nature.
SPEAKING CHRISTIAN: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power - And How They can Be Restored, by Marcus J. Borg (2011). New York, NY: Harper Collins. ISBN 978-0-06-197655-1 (238 pp.) plus 2.5 pp. notes, and 4 pp. discussion questions.Everyone who knows me knows that I am a Marcus Borg fan and I make no apologies for this. Borg is a recognized biblical scholar who, in addition to his academic publications and research, has spent many of his professional years being Hundere Chair of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University and, at the same time, teaching at least some undergraduate classes in religion. Teaching undergraduates is where scholars hone their teaching abilities and learn to express their thoughts in clear and understandable language. This process in Borg’s lifework has been a windfall for ordinary lay people of every persuasion, especially those struggling in mainstream liturgical churches. Since his retirement in 2007, the annual number of non-academic books that Borg has published has increased, providing a veritable treasure house of information for lay Christians. This book follows in that informative vein and is a pleasure to read.
SPEAKING CHRISTIAN is a primer on Christian language which addresses our deeply divided understandings within our shared English language when it comes to the Bible. Borg examines literalness and our (fairly recent) historical focus on a heaven and hell framework, with an emphasis on the afterlife, sin and forgiveness, and Jesus’ dying and our “believing”. Borg builds on this thinking and presents a further understanding in this book which is not “literal” but could be seen as an alternative understanding of the language of the Bible. In this Borg “draws on the Bible and premodern Christian tradition” as well as his skill in the early New Testament languages and his knowledge of First century culture. There are two purposes for this book: “to offer an alternative understanding” and “to redeem and reclaim Christian language in all of its richness and wisdom.” This book helps us to learn to read and hear the language of our faith with fresh understanding and awareness. It is an enlarging book, an edifying pleasure.
There are twenty-five relatively short chapters in the book. Each one takes up a major concept or specific word of our faith, such as: “Beyond Literalism”, “Believing and Faith”, “Sin”, “Righteousness”, “Born Again”, “The Rapture and the Second Coming”, “Heaven”, and my favorite, “ The Creeds and the Trinity”, to list a few. For the many people who have trouble saying the Creed, because some of the phrases are so contrary to our 21st Century scientific understandings, this last named chapter is worth the price of the whole book.
Unlike Borg’s other books which often focus on a specific section of the Bible or a specific person or a specific measure of time, this book examines the tool with which we come to know the faith. Understanding this tool is critically important for our understanding of the whole story of creation and our place in it. I heartily recommend this book to everyone, especially the people among us who (like me) are innate skeptics.
NOT COUNTING WOMEN AND CHILDREN: Neglected Stories from the Bible by Megan McKenna (1994). Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Book. ISBN 0-88344-946-3 (214 pp.) (“Afterword” 11pp.)This book is based on the belief that “all is story” and the story “never ends”. It is a reflection on scripture and as such follows in the Jewish tradition of “midrash”, a tried and tested method of doing theology. By this method, one reflects on scriptures in order to discern meaning and understanding and to see an application of the story’s truth to one’s own life. In this case, we want also to discern meaning and application in modern times. The reflections in this book are clearly midrash (commentaries) on some carefully selected stories. The stories, the author believes, have been neglected or have been abused of their original meaning by disinterest or distorted understanding. These stories are all about women, but that does not mean that they are stories only for women.... “I chose these carefully as foundation stories to get us thinking like a child (of God), a woman (of God), a man of God, one of the poor, the not-counted, the forgotten....
The selected Bible stories are all some of our favorites: “ The Feeding of the five Thousand” from which the title of the book comes; the women of “The Exodus”; “Unless You Become Like a Little child”; “The Women in the Genealogy of Jesus”; “The Canaanite Woman” (Some know this story as “The Syrophoenician Woman”); “The Widow of Nain”; “Sarah and Hagar: Who is our Mother in Faith?”; “Abigail, Teacher of Peace”; “Women of Jerusalem”. All these chapters provide an opportunity to read more deeply into the lives of these women. The Syrophoenician Woman is my all time favorite. But it was very enlightening for me to read about some of these women about whom I knew very little and to think about their lives in relation to our lives as people of God.
Let me describe the chapter, “The Women in the Geneology of Jesus” which begins with Tamar, who was unjustly treated by her father-in-law after her husband died, but who figured out a way to gain her rights and to gain a chance at a life with dignity and children and a place in the community. This woman teaches us (women and men) about justice, fairness, righteousness, and human dignity, all things that the Law was supposed to serve and uphold. Then there is Rahab the harlot who helps Joshua’s spies. She chose to align herself with the Isrealites and saves her family...her mother, father, brothers, and sisters. The issue with Rahab is not her sexuality but that she heard the word of God and acted upon it, an excellent lesson for all of us. Next McKenna takes up the story of Ruth, which is, of course, the story of Naomi, as well. Ruth was Naomi’s daughter-in-law and their fate was that both were widowed in a foreign land. There they were, outcasts on several scales.....women without men, women without children, foreigners. These were very big liabilities in Moab, where they lived, because of famine in their own land. Naomi encourages Ruth to go back to her father’s house and to find a husband there. But Ruth will not leave Naomi and replies: “DO NOT ASK ME TO ABANDON YOU OR FORSAKE YOU! For wherever you go I will go, wherever you lodge I will lodge, your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” We often hear these words at weddings (though not necessarily including the first sentence quoted here). Of course, the words are appropriate at weddings, but the original use of the words signaled a proposal from one desperately poor woman to another desperately poor woman. Both of these women were without husbands. Both were without children. They were living in a foreign land, in a culture which prized women primarily as wives and mothers, where childless widows could be put outside the city wall to beg. The proposal put forth by Ruth was that they stick together for their own survival ...and they did. It’s a story of solidarity, in the face of Big Power and is a valuable lesson for all of us. Lastly, McKenna takes up the story of, Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah. She was stolen from her husband by David, the King, and perhaps raped. When she was found to be pregnant, David had her husband killed. Bathsheba is not named in Jesus’ genealogy. She is listed only as the wife of Uriah. But under the circumstances in which she found herself, she aligned herself with David. Her husband was away, fighting for David in his army and everyone would surmise that Uriah couldn’t be the father of her child. David has done a terrible thing...two things, actually... and we do not know the level of Bathsheba’s complicity. IT IS A DISTURBING STORY, brought to a head by the prophet Nathan. In the end, David confessed, and was forgiven. Uriah paid with his life, the unborn child died, as well. Bathsheba suffered the loss of her child. But that is not the end of the story. Later Bathsheba was comforted with the child, Solomon, a second child of David’s, and David became a valuable King with Bathsheba as his Queen. “People who are totally human, weak, sinful, and even evil can still be beloved by God and forgiven.” It is also possible that they can eventually carry out the will of God, as well. We worship a God who does not hold grudges.
McKenna asks the question, why were these women listed in Jesus’ genealogy and not some others? It seems that like all the rest of us, Jesus’ ancestors were not all uniformly upright and orderly. Nor, perhaps, are we. “But these women all fought for life, for children, for the continuation of hope, for generation, even if they did so in unorthodox ways.” In the end, justice is served, all is forgiven, hope is restored. God works with whomever God can find.
I have only described one chapter. All the chapters in this book are readable and informative. All the stories are well worth our attention. They can help us to reconsider who it is that we proclaim as Christ. Consider this: “Jesus, the crucified one, is the image of the One not counted, forgotten, cast aside, rejected. Yet this Jesus is the One that God raised from the dead. Now this Jesus remembers all those not counted and puts them at the head of the parade. And all women and children and men, all humankind and earth and its creatures sing for the ‘great things this God has done for them’ This is the way God’s stories go. This is the Word of the Lord.”
I recommend this book most highly. It is a pleasure to read.
THE LAST WEEK: A Day by Day Account of Jesus’s Final Week in Jerusalem, by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan (2006). San Francisco: Harper Collins. ISBN-13 978-0-06-084539-1 (216 pp.) plus Notes (4 pp.)
This book is another joint venture of two “Jesus scholars” and is their attempt to clarify the details of the last week of Jesus’ life. The book is based on the scriptural account of Jesus’ last week as found in Mark’s Gospel. Historical, cultural, and linguistic information from Borg’s and Crossan’s scholarly work, and the scholarly work of others, permeates the narrative of this book.
The authors begin with a gripping account of the first Palm Sunday, comparing and contrasting the two triumphal entries into Jerusalem on that day. From the west came Pontius Pilot, the Roman governor, with all the ceremony and glitter of Rome and it’s powerful army, displaying not only Roman imperial power but also Roman imperial theology. The Roman Emperor, going back to Augustus (who was regarded as the son of Apollo) were each, in turn, seen as the “Son of God”. Pontius Pilot was the representative of the Emperor in Judea. At the same time as Pontius Pilot’s arrival, but from the east and on the other side of town, came “Jesus of Nazareth”, an itinerant peasant preacher, welcomed and celebrated by a mostly peasant crowd who thirsted for relief from their suffering at the hands of the Roman and the Jewish hierarchies.
From the first Palm Sunday, the authors take the readers through Mark’s Gospel and each of the subsequent six days leading to Easter Sunday. In the course of this, we learn about this Jewish/Roman society that was organized by political and economic “domination systems”. We learn that the religious system legitimated or justified the existing political and economic systems through religious language and customs. The Emperor (or King), was the Son of God. The social order, both political and economic were the will of God. The powers that be were ordained by God. The religious system surrounding the Temple did not challenge the Romans. Instead, they collaborated with the Romans and were able to continue as they had been within their own “systems of domination”. The society was, however, a long way from what the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, (Micah, Isaiah, Jeremiah) had preached concerning justice and well-being. Life in first century Judea was exemplifying, instead, that which those same prophets had warned against as harlotry and collaboration. One can see how changing this societal thinking would be a monumental and revolutionary task. In the spirit of the Prophets, Jesus of Nazareth set out to do just that. He embodied something more that just revolution, however, something compatible with the peasants’ hope. This book recounts and clarifies the final processes and the culmination of his effort.
This is a wonderful book, well written, well researched, and an interesting and exciting reading experience. I heartily recommend it to everyone. Especially I recommend it as a challenge to “take on” for a Lenten discipline. You will not regret it.
THE FIRST CHRISTMAS: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Birth, by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan (2007). New York: Harper Collins. ISBN: 978-0-06-143070-1 (244 pp.) plus three Appendices (11 pp.) And Notes (1 p.)
The Bible stories of first the birth and later the death of Jesus are like two book-ends for God’s story of our salvation. This book is the “beginning” and is a suggested reading for Advent. THE LAST WEEK, by the same authors, (reviewed earlier) is a suggested reading for Lent.
THE FIRST CHRISTMAS consists of nine chapters, grouped into three parts: “Parable, Overture, and Context”, “Genealogy, Conception, and Birth”, “Light, Fulfillment and Joy”. This book examines the birth narratives as found in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. The authors, both New Testament scholars, provide comparisons of the birth narratives of these two Gospels. As well, they discuss what the birth narratives tell us about the early followers of Jesus and their understanding of the story of salvation. Early in the volume Borg and Crossan address the issue of “fact” and “truth” and conclude that the birth stories are parables, which means that they are narrative metaphors whose truth lie in their meaning not in their fact. The followers of Jesus are relating, here, the parables about Jesus’ coming as the bearer of God’s kingdom.
There are three thematic emphases in this book. The first is JOY, the dominant tone in the celebration of Christmas. The second is the season of Advent, the anticipatory month of repentance in preparation for the coming of the Christ child. Lastly, there is the theme of making sense out of the first Christmas for Christmases present and future.
The authors point to the Christmas Canticles and to Christmas hymns that help us to celebrate the joy of Christmas; but they also point to Christ’s birth in the midst of the conflict of Herod’s reign and Mary’s eventual pain at the cross. We have joy, but we also have conflict, at the first Christmas and in Christmases of our time and probably into Christmases of the future. The texts from Isaiah for the Sundays in Advent, point to Israel’s yearning and to God’s promise of a different kind of world and emphasize repentance and that a new day is coming. In Mary, expectation and anticipation has become pregnancy. A new life, a new world is waiting to be born in the midst of Imperial Rome. Lastly, the reader is challenged to consider personal and community identity, “In this setting, the anti-imperial meanings of the birth stories raise challenging questions for American Christians. Who are we in these stories?” Who are we, citizens of a great imperial power, who have seen the star and sung the songs and what are we called to do?
This is a wonderful book which I heartily recommend to anyone who is serious about the faith and serious about making an adult response to the wonder and truth of the Christmas stories. It makes a great Advent reading experience.
PAUL FOR EVERYONE: Romans Part 1, Romans Part 2 by N.T. Wright (2004). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press. ISBN-10: 0-664-22799-6 (Part 1); ISBN-10 0664-22912-3 (Part 2). (Part 1, 161 pp; Part 2, 1 42 pp) (Each volume contains the same glossary of 15 pages.) This is a two volume commentary on St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. The author of the commentary is the Bishop of Durham (Church of England), a serious Biblical scholar. These volumes are a part of Wright’s complete contribution of commentaries on all of the books of the New Testament. Each book in the series has the name of the New Testament book on which Wright is commenting followed by the words, “For Everyone” in its title. This is an excellent series, especially useful of anyone studying the Bible as a solo student. Paul’s Letter to the Romans is a long book of 16 intellectually dense chapters. More important, it is the collection of St. Paul’s writings in which he lays out his specific theology. Given that Paul was the first to write down the oral history of Jesus’ life and ministry and the effects of these on First Century people, as well as on Paul himself, it is a critically important document. It is also a difficult document to understand. Paul does not really “lay out” his theology. Rather he circulates it in an ever-revealing corkscrew of thinking about Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, and the significance of his life and his mission for all of humanity, as well as for our understanding of the Church and of our understanding of God as revealed in the Christ. It is a big order.
Paul was blessed with a great First Century mind, worthy of our attention. Bishop Wright is more than capable for the task of helping us to understand Paul’s writing. The book presents manageable sections of this epistle in sequential order with Wright providing his own translation. Wright’s translations are clear and current. Each section of Paul’s writing is followed by an explanation of the section and a current example that clarifies the section. Sometimes space is given to explaining the meaning of a term at the time of Paul’s writing and how that term might have changed its meaning over time. In short, Bishop Wright enlightens the reader about Paul’s meaning, as best he can, from his knowledge of the original language (Greek) and his knowledge of the social, political, and cultural situation at the time of its writing.
The first volume of PAUL FOR EVERYONE addresses the first eight chapters of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. The second volume addresses chapters 9-16 of the Epistle. This is an excellent resource for lay readers. I heartily recommend these volumes to anyone struggling to understand the Epistle to the Romans and I recommend the whole series to anyone interested in gaining a better understanding of our Biblical heritage.
CHRISTIAN SOCIAL WITNESS by Harold T. Lewis (2001). Cambridge: Cowley Publications. ISBN:1-56101-188-6 (139 pp.) plus Endnotes (10 pp.) Resources (8 pp.) and Questions for Group Discussion (4 pp.) This last category is organized by chapters.
This book is part of the “New Church’s Teaching Series” and is a good resource for anyone trying to understand how and why we should carry out our faith in practical terms within situations of individual, community, or societal needs. It describes the logical consequences of our formation in the faith, inasmuch as social justice is the job description of our work as Christians.
There are seven chapters in this book. The first four chapters, The Bible, The Church of England, The Episcopal Church, Economic Justice, give the reader an overview of historical, legal, and canonical traditions within our faith community. The last three chapters, Race, Gender, Human Sexuality, enlarge upon the economic justice purpose of the fourth chapter, focusing on the three great consternations of the 20th and early 21st Century Church.
This is an interesting and thought-provoking book and I enjoyed it. I have a few anxieties, however, with Lewis’ emphasis on Richard Hooker’s theology, or at least what has been an interpretation of it. Hooker was a very important 16th Century apologist for Anglicanism “to whom we are indebted for the three-legged stool of scripture, tradition and reason on which the ethos and identity of Anglicanism rest”. As a woman, I have experienced this three-legged stool as a three-pronged pitchfork on which women have been skewered in diminishing degrees well into the 20th and 21st Centuries and upon which homosexuals continue to be skewered today. Lewis quickly qualifies this statement with additional emphasis on James E. Griffiss’ work. (Griffiss is also a writer in the New Church’s Teaching Series) who observes “that the genius of Hooker’s theology is found in his desire to maintain continuity with traditions received from the past while accommodating the changes that new situations demand. (The emphasis is mine.)
We can and should look to more than the Bible for guidance. As well, through the introduction of various liberation theologies, Lewis elucidates the problem of the astonishing growing gap between rich and poor that has occurred in the USA and other wealthy nations over the last 30 years, and the similar expanding gap in economic power between rich countries and poor countries. We as Christians are certainly required to address this economic injustice. It is something that we need to examine more closely, as individuals and as a church. I can definitely recommend this book and would like to know what others think of it, and of what we should do about economic injustice or any other injustices on which Lewis or a reader ruminates.
SACRED HEARTS by Sarah Dunant (2009). London, UK.: Virago Press.ISBN 978-1-84408-596-5 (461 pp.) Sarah Dunant is a British author and broadcaster with academic credentials in history. She has written a series of detective stories in addition to her historical works. All of her books, that I have read, have a pleasurable detective “thrill” in them. Dunant has a particular interest in the 16th century. SACRED HEARTS is her latest book and is the last in Dunant’s “Italian Trilogy”. The author describes some critical events in this period: “One of the final decrees of the Council of Trent before it disbanded in December 1563 was a rushed but detailed reform of nunneries, in response to the fierce challenges and criticisms thrown up by the Protestant Reformation. These changes, which were extensive, took time to be implemented, depending on the zeal of the local bishops, the compliance of the order, the nature of each convent and the strength of opposing influence of local noble families. Eventually reform did come. By the turn of the sixteenth century, when rampant dowry inflation resulted in almost half of all noblewomen in Italian cities becoming nuns, convent life had changed forever. ‘Visitations’ (from authorities in the church) brought in new rules. All contact with the outside world was brutally restricted; stray holes or windows bricked up, grilles put in place everywhere. Walls were made higher. Churches were redesigned so that the congregation saw nothing of the nuns within. Parlatori were similarly divided, with grilles and drawn curtains so that families could no longer freely mingle together.” (Previously, families could visit with their daughters in the convents on Sundays and Holy Days.) “Performance and music suffered particularly. In some cities plays and all forms of polyphony were banned and convent orchestras- apart from a single organ- prohibited.” A poignant letter sent in 1586 to the Pope himself by a nun in Bologna describes it succinctly:
“Many of us are shut up against our will (sic)and deprived of all contact with the outside world. Living with such strictness and abandoned by everyone, we have only hell, in this world and the next.”
This book, organized in three parts with forty-nine chapters, is a fictional account of the lives of one religious order of women within the factual course of the church’s history. Through it we receive the stories of different women living in the fictional convent of Santa Caterina, in Ferrara in 1570. We learn how the convent is organized, how the women cope, how they survive, and how some of them don’t survive. We meet several of the nuns intimately, especially the abbess, Madonna Chiara; the healer, Suora Zuana, and the young novice Serafina. In the course of the story of SACRED HEARTS we learn something about the church’s politics of the time as well as the convent’s politics. We meet women who desired or were resigned to being in the convent, and who were able to find a niche for their interests and talents and skills. We meet, as well, at least one woman didn’t want to be in ANY convent. Some of these women were teenagers but most were of older ages. For many there was no other option than the nunnery.
This is a very interesting book and a wonderful “read”. We can gain insights about the church in this time in history and about the situation that women faced during this intense upheaval in both the church and in society. Because of the threat of the reformation thinking, the church had to appear, at least, to be doing something to counteract the threat. Who better to “get into line” than these women? Who indeed. SACRED HEARTS is a novel about power, creativity and passion....both of the body and of the soul.”
I heartily recommend this book (and this author) to readers everywhere, both men and women, especially those interested in the church in this time in history.
THE JESUIT GUIDE TO (ALMOST) EVERYTHING: A Spirituality for Real Life, by James Martin S. J. New York: Harper Collins Books (2010). ISBN: 978-0-06-143268-2 (405 pp plus index,19 pp).
This book was a lot more fun than I thought it would be. It gives the reader good information about the Jesuits and about their calling. More important, for the ordinary lay person, it provides a practical description of the Jesuit way of life and offers it as a possible model for all the rest of us. The Society of Jesus (the “Jesuits”) were founded by a wonderfully practical man (Ignatius of Loyola) who was also a mystic. This has proven to be an interesting combination of traits. The book consists of fourteen chapters, the first of which is “a Way of Proceeding” and the last of which is “Contemplation in Action”.
For members of the order, Jesuit spirituality, is taught through the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, and through living in an open community. (Jesuits are everywhere and do just about everything.)
The Exercises ultimately lead Society members to the goals of Jesuit spirituality: finding God in all things; becoming contemplative in action; looking at the world in an incarnational way; and seeking freedom and detachment.
One of the most fundamental teachings of all Ignatius’ teachings is that the individual has to find the way that suits him best and apply the work of the Exercises to that personal way. This leaves the door open for the development of a similar spirituality incorporated into the lives of lay persons wherever they may find themselves. In addition to offering information about the Jesuits, the founding of the order, its traditions, and its spiritual teachings, this book offers a practical guide for living. It is funny, insightful, spiritual, and full of wisdom. It is intended for the widest possible audience. I recommend it highly.
PRAYERS FOR A PRIVILEGED PEOPLE, by Walter Brueggemann, Nashville: Abingdon Press (2008). ISBN:978-0-687-65019-4 (185 pp.) no index, Preface (15pp).
Walter Brueggemann is the son of a German Evangelical pastor, born in the mid-west (Nebraska) and educated first at Elmhurst College near Chicago and later at Eden and Union Theological Seminaries (both in New York) and at St Louis University. He is one of the world’s leading scholars of the Old Testament. He is retired now and lives in Ohio. He begins this book of prayers by stating, “Prayers for a ‘privileged people’ isn’t a new idea to me, primarily because I am inordinately privileged in every way...white, male, tenured, blessed with every gift our political economy could provide.” He goes on to relate how we live in privileged environments and most of our churches “are exactly such venues of privilege” and our privilege “tends to work against openheartedness.” If we were honest, as privileged people in privileged environments, “hard issues like privilege and entitlement, injustice and violence would be on the table”. These prayers, like most prayers, are context specific and that context is our privileged lives. Brueggemann writes and prays as one of us.
The first section, “Opening our Hearts: the Collect”, begins with six prayers on the words and phrases of the “Collect for Purity” which is familiar to all Episcopalians. These are lovely insightful prayers. According to Brueggemann, entry into the presence of God depends on God’s graciousness and is to be undertaken with “great intentionality”. The words of this great Collect become more meaningful, more supportive of one’s consciousness of intentionality, and more a part of one’s inner life with each of the sequential prayers. Saying The Collect for Purity thereafter has a greater possibility of becoming an intentional act, and not a repetitious muttering.
The subsequent prayers in this book, accumulated randomly over time and evoked by different circumstances are grouped under five headings: “Well-Arranged Lives”; “The World is Not Safe”; “Brick Production”; “Can We Risk It?”; “Choirs of Hope”. In these sections one can find a prayer which is appropriate for just about any human situation or experience. The prayers speak to us. We have been there, too. But our prayers on these occasions are not as articulate as Brueggemann’s. We can meditate on his prayers, study them, reflect on them, talk about them or simply pray them. This is a valuable collection of thoughtful prayers. I heartily recommend it for anyone who wants to seriously reflect on our life together...all of us...on this planet...at this time.
THE POWER OF ONE by Bryce Courtenay (2008) (paperback edition). New York: Ballantine Books. ISBN 978-0-345-41005-4 (513 pp. plus a glossary, 3pp, background material, 6 pp, and discussion questions 3 pp.)This is an interesting book and this particular edition, Reader’s Circle, was fun to read, even without a book club to share it with me. The story takes place in South Africa, beginning at about the same time as the Second World War (1939). Hitler is a shadow presence throughout the book. The greater menace, however, is Apartheid, which became law in South Africa in 1948. The hero of this story is “Peekay”, a young white child of a family with limited resources. The story begins during Peekay’s early years as the youngest child in his boarding school. We see how he overcomes bullying at this early age and how he learns to overcome many sequences of adversity. His “growing up” is the background of this story of intelligence and courage, which also highlights the power of good teaching and the power of words. Along the way we see how Peekay learns to use the opportunities that present themselves to his good advantage and survival.
While Peekay has a mother and a grandfather who seem to care for him, in actuality, he is quite alone in his world. Fortunately, he finds people to share his epic journey who instill positive attitudes and teach him valuable skills. He is a lucky and gifted boy who vows to survive and learns quickly how to make the best use of every challenge that comes his way. I couldn’t help, while reading this book, to contemplate all the kids as intelligent and gifted as he who never find such mentors and never experience such powerful opportunities.
This is an inspiring book of childhood and growth into young adulthood which highlights the value of independence along with the value of learning from others. It is a pleasant read, sometimes gripping, sometimes simply relaxed fun. The reader can learn something about apartheid here and something about tribal superstitions and modern prejudices as well as the effects of the long shadows of the Boer War and of Hitler’s brutality. I have only one criticism...Peekay always “wins” and always survives. It might have been interesting to explore how he would deal with failure. Nevertheless, this book is a good read and I happily recommend it for anyone looking for some simple pleasures.
READING OBAMA: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition by James T. Kloppenberg (2011). Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. ISBN: 978‑0691‑14746‑8 (265 pp.) plus an essay on sources (20 pp.) and an index (9 pp.)
James T. Kloppenberg is an American historian, teaching at Harvard. His primary interest is intellectual history, and usually he has written about the development of intellectual thought over specific eras, or in specific geographical locations. He has written this intellectual biography of Barack Obama, by interviewing Obama’s former professors and classmates, studying Obama’s books, essays and speeches, and reading every article Obama published in the three years that he was involved with the Harvard Law Review (88‑89, 89‑90,90‑91). Kloppenberg sees Obama as one of possibly only seven philosopher Presidents in our history (John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Quincy Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and Barack Obama.)
Kloppenberg proposes that Obama is a philosophical pragmatist, a follower of a uniquely American system of thought that developed at the end of the 19th Century. Most of us know of this philosophy from the works of William James, John Dewey (a favorite of teacher education colleges in the 20th Century) and Charles Sanders Pierce. Philosophical pragmatism embraces the notions that we are constantly thinking about and devising ways to successfully navigate the world in which we live. We develop methods of testing our plans and of debating what we learn from our experimentation. “This is a philosophy for skeptics, not true believers” (Kloppenberg).
This is a difficult book for those of us with skimpy educations in philosophy, political science, and history. I googled many items to refresh my memory or to learn something new and developed a short glossary of terms (fourteen items) in the process. The “Introduction” to the book is well worth reading. It helps the reader to develop an image of the emergence of Obama’s personal thought from his personal experience and from the dynamics of American history, especially recent political history. There are four chapters in the book.
‘The Education of Barack Obama” gives the reader an overview of Obama’s early education and experiences, from childhood through law school. It shows, as well, the particular significance of one of his undergaduate professors, thus giving wonderful support to all teachers of under‑ graduates. “From Universalism to Particularism” focuses on Obama’s development during the intellectually turbulent years at the end of the 20th Century. “Obama’s American History” locates his thinking within the much wider historical context,of American democratic theory and practice (notably John and John Q. Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln, T. and F. D. Roosevelt, and Wilson) as well as within the ideas of the philosophical pragmatists. The last chapter, “Conclusion: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition” tries to put this all together. Undergirding Obama’s politics “lies a sustained engagement with America’s democratic traditions” and Kloppenberg’s book tries to connect all the dots.
This is an excellent book. Well worth the effort to read, and mark and hopefully understand Obama a little bit better. I recommend it very highly to anyone trying to understand the current political situation in the USA.
THE PRACTICE OF PRAYER by Margaret Guenther (1998). Cambridge Massachusetts: Cowley Publications. ISBN 1‑56101‑152‑5 (200 pp.) plus a discussion of resources (6 pp.)and suggested discussion questions by chapters (6 pp.).
This book is volume 4 of the New Church’s Teaching Series. Margaret Guenther is an Episcopal priest, spiritual director and retreat leader. She begins this rich little volume with a series of questions common to all and confesses that she had reservations about writing a book on prayer. Because the assigned title of the book refers to the PRACTICE of prayer, however, she felt that she could write it. All of us who pray, PRACTICE it . We never become experts. It is similar to practicing music. Few of us are experts in music, nevertheless, we all rejoice in our music making, especially after we have practiced. Through the two sections of the book, “Spirituality and Prayer” and “Prayer in the Midst of Life” Guenther leads the reader reassuringly through prayer steps and possibilities that can help us to rejoice in our prayer life, as well, especially as we practice it. This is a very rich, friendly little book that I heartily recommend to everyone.
Nassal, Joseph (2000) PREMEDITATED MERCY:ASPIRITUALITY OF RECONCILIATION. Levenworth KS: Forest of Peace Publishing (235 pp. plus Epilogue of 11 pp.). ISBN: 0-939516-49-7.
Reconciliation is a big part of the Gospel message and is articulated to us over and over again, especially in the two Great Commandments: Love God and love you neighbor as yourself. In practice, among other things, we are to forgive and to reconcile with each other before bringing our gifts to the altar.
This book reflects upon our inward journey with God, but it is more than this. It is a meditation on our inward and outward journeys with God and with our companions. The phrase “premeditated mercy” implies “a deliberate thoughtful and willful act to give life”....just the opposite of “premeditated murder” How do we give life? Nassal’s answer to this question is the energy behind this book. In it, he covers many possibilities, chapter by chapter; forgiveness, reconciliation, living at peace with others...even with those who have betrayed us, forsaken us abandoned us, threatened us. He provides quotes from recognized spiritually alive people and uses stories from the lives of real people and from his own experiences, to teach us. Gently he moves us along an inclusive road of growth in the spiritual life, especially as our lives intersect with the lives of others.
Basically, Nassal explores how we can become more conscious in making the appropriate connections within ourselves and within our relationships to lead a life of reconciliation or at least to more closely approximate it. This book is very well written and is both thought-provoking and inspiring. I heartily recommend it to anyone interested in spirituality practiced in the outward journey as well as the inward journey...which should include all of us!
IN THE EYE OF THE STORM by V. Gene Robinson (2008). New York: Seabury BooksISBN 978‑1‑59627‑088‑6 (176 pp.) with a Foreword by Desmond Tutu.
Bishop Gene Robinson is at the center of the storm concerning whether or not there is a place for homosexual people in our Anglican Communion, and if so, what that place should be. This book is the story of Gene Robinson’s salvation and as he tells his story, he brings along with him the stories of many others who have made similar journeys...people of non-Caucasian ancestry, people from non-northern-European ancestry, people with disabilities, people who are not male...all the groups who have experienced marginalization or have been rejected or relegated to dependency within both church and society in the story of western civilization. This is not a history book, however, nor is it a dreary book of accusations. This is a very joyful book with many examples of human courage, human patience and human possibilities, all surrounding Robinson’s major thesis: that we have to continue to talk to each other and to hear each other’s stories so that the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, can do her work. While there are some organizational problems in the first part of the book, the last half of the book is riveting. This is a very life-affirming book and would make a good group study book for people of different persuasions concerning homosexual, bi-sexual, and cross-gendered persons. I heartily recommend it.
THE BISHOP’S MAN: A NOVEL by Linden MacIntyre (2009) Toronto: Random House of Canada. ISBN: 978-0-307-35706-9 (399 pp.).
The story of this novel takes place mostly in Cape Breton and is an examination of the life and thoughts of Father Duncan MacAskill who, for most of the story, is a parish priest in a little fishing village on the east coast of Nova Scotia. But Father MacAskill also has another job. He is “the Bishop’s man”. He is the priest that the Bishop recruits to do the clean up work of the diocese. He is the man the Bishop sends to give errant priests their walking papers, when their behavior can no longer be tolerated, no matter how desperate the Bishop might be for priests. Father MacAskill calls on the problem priest and immediately sends him off to Toronto to a rehabilitation center. Then Father MacAskill tidies up the impending scandal while also tidying up the victim’s emotions. At least once, when news reporters asked too many questions and got too close, Father MacAskill was sent off to do missionary work in Central America, far from the prying questions of the reporters. That missionary experience proved to be the turning point for Father Mac Askill’s eventual coming to terms with what it is that he is doing as the Bishop’s man, though he didn’t know it at the time.
This book is a “good read”, though if one is flash-back challenged, it could be a struggle. Like all good literature, it provokes the reader to THINK about the characters in the book...the priests and their loneliness and their struggles, the Bishop’s constant concern about avoiding scandal, the pain of the victims and their families, the culture of secrecy, the culture of priests and the culture of the people who regard priests as next to God himself....and the struggles of the people who can see some problems with such adoration. Especially rewarding in this book is observing the growth that Father MacAskill experiences in himself. This is a well written and timely novel, winner of the 2009 Giller Prize, which I recommend to anyone who likes timely sociological novels.
RECONCILIATION by Michael Battle (1997). Cleveland, OH, The Pilgrim Press. ISBN: 0‑8298‑1158‑3 (181 pp.) plus notes (32 pp.) and bibliography (35 pp.)
I suspect that this book was Michael Battle’s doctoral thesis. It is well researched and very readable. Battle offers a “meditation” upon Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s theological convictions, and his deeply Christian spirituality. Tutu’s theology arose out of his cultural experience, his African insights, his life in the Anglican Church, and his formation with the Community of the Resurrection with whom he trained for the priesthood. In this community, Tutu learned the art of solitude, and it was with them that he learned “that prayer, meditation, retreat, devotional reading, and holy communion were all utterly central and indispensable to an authentic Christian existence.” Trevor Huddleston, a member of this community, influenced him greatly. From this spiritual milieu and on this foundation Tutu developed into a “political priest”, living the Gospel in the presence of the terrors of his time.
This is a wonderful book which covers not only Tutu’s development but also offers comparisons of Tutu’s thinking to competing theologies within the black struggles of the late 20th Century. It is a book which requires thoughtfulness on the reader’s part but it is well worth the effort.
A THEOLOGY OF WORSHIP by Louis Weil (2002). Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications. ISBN 1‑56101‑194‑0 (143 pp.) plus Endnotes (3 pp.), Resources (3pp.), and Questions for Group Discussion (3.5 pp.).
This book is Vol. 12 in the New Church’s Teaching Series. Louis Weil is an Episcopal priest and is the James F. Hodges Professor of Liturgics at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific. Weil’s purpose in the book is at least two-fold 1) to help newcomers to the Episcopal Church find a grounding in the fundamentals of church life and 2) to articulate a change in focus in the understanding of corporate worship for both laity and clergy. While anyone can worship privately, our identity as Christians is as a group. Hence our worship is a shared activity. Each chapter of this book addresses a new understanding of the church and of the liturgy in our shared experience. Chapters discuss the following: the recovery of a baptismal ecclesiology; the liturgy as the work of the people; the liturgy and our multicultural church; including the arts as forms of prayer; and celebrating the signs of a baptismal faith. This book is edifying and rewarding. This liturgist has written meaningfully, not only about inclusive language, but also about the inclusion of all persons in the language, actions, and meanings of the liturgy, the people’s work This is an excellent book which would be a wonderful resource for parishes wanting to enlarge their understanding of worship and wanting to explore the new opportunities for worship that are available to us. I found this book deeply affirming and heartily recommend it to others and to parishes as a whole.
SOME THINGS ARE UNBREAKABLE by Kate Willette (2006). Seattle, WA: Coal Creek Press ISBN 978‑1‑4303‑0796‑9 (336 pp.) plus Prologue (1 p.) and Postscript (3 pp.) and bibliography.
Kate Willett is a wife, mother, teacher, and part‑time leader of a youth group at her local Congregational church. She is the mother in the family of this memoir describing the process of recovery of her husband, Bruce, following his spinal cord injury. This book is a well written and very honest account of a family’s surviving and eventually thriving despite the very serious injury of its primary bread‑winner. As well, it is an excellent description of how a community of faith organized themselves to provide necessary support ...practical, emotional and spiritual... to a family in desperate need of immediate help. Then later, as the needs diminished, how the community of faith let go, so that the family could function, if not exactly as before, at least as independently as possible and with considerable individual and family competence. This is a thoughtful and beautiful memoir which offers practical information for all people involved with persons with disabilities. While it is specifically about spinal cord injury, the imaginative reader could estimate the situation for any person or family with a “difference”. This book can help us as family, or as church, or as school, or as society, to enlarge our lives, so that people who are different can be included within our circles and can take part as much as possible. This would be an excellent choice for any book group, especially a book group within a community of faith.
THE SHACK: Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity, by Wm Paul Young (2007). Los Angeles, CA: Windblown Media. ISBN‑10: 0‑9647292‑3‑7; ISBN‑13: 978‑0‑9647292‑3‑0
This is an unusual book, which I would not have chosen for myself, but many people around me were reading it and were enthusiastic about it, so I decided to read it. It is book of fiction and I would call it a fantasy. It is the story of Mack, a man whose little daughter was murdered and who, in the midst of his painful grief, receives a cryptic invitation to visit at the shack where Missy was killed. To his surprise, he discovers that the current occupants of the shack are God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and Wisdom. As you can imagine, Mack has a lot of grief and pain and many questions to express. Through conversations with these unique individuals and through activities with them, Mack grows in his ability to assess his situation and to see the cosmic significance of this tragedy. Painfully, he grows in forgiveness and in understanding. In the process, many sophisticated theological issues are presented to the reader in understandable and practical language. We learn along with Mack. This is a sad book with an edifying and joyful and hopeful message. I recommend it to everyone, especially to young adults.
HALF THE SKY:TURNING OPPRESSION INTO OPPORTUNITY FOR WOMEN WORLDWIDE by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (2009). New York: Vintage Books. ISBN 987-U-307.38709 (254 pp.) Plus appendix and notes, (24 pp.) and index.
The first portion of this book is difficult to read because it discusses the many terrible things that can happen to women in this world, especially women in the third world. Kristof and WuDunn (husband and wife) do not indulge in gratuitous violence, however. Rather, they calmly describe the situations that many women face as they try to live out their lives within the social, cultural, and political realities that surround them. Most important, this book examines ways that we westerners can help. The book focuses on women, but this does not mean that terrible things don’t happen to men in this world, it only means that the focus of this book is on women.
The titles of the introduction and the chapters describe the topics covered; (The Introduction) “The Girl Effect, (Chapters) “Emancipating 21st Century Slaves”, “Prohibition and Prostitution”, “Learning to Speak Up”, “Rule by Rape”, “The Shame of Honor”, “Maternal Mortality-----One Women a Minute”, “Why Do Women Die in Childbirth?”, “Family Planning...”, “Is Islam Misogynistic?” “Investing in Education”, “Micro-Credit: The Financial Revolution”, “The Axis of Equality”, “Grassroots vs. Treetops”, “What You Can Do”. In each chapter, the authors move their discussion from informing to examining actual programs and projects. To that end, the specifics of successful programs needing support are explained and highlighted in the last chapter. The appendix is devoted to providing a wealth of website information. Readers can discover how to offer support in the form of money or, in some cases, in the form of time.
This is a wonderfully informative book. While the topic is sad and distressing, the general effect of the book is overwhelmingly positive and hopeful. Bear in mind that the countries where the standards of living, of health and of education, and where levels of literacy are highest, are ALSO the countries where women and girls have the most freedoms and the most human rights and the most opportunities. Keeping women and girls at low levels aof opportunity and regarding them as expendable second class humans doesn’t seem to help the overall well-being of a country. In fact, the effect is just the opposite. Humanity will not “get ahead” if it leaves its women and girls behind. This is a book that anyone interested in the welfare of women and girls, and in the general well being of all people, will want to read. I recommend it most highly.
THE FIRST PAUL: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon, by Marcus J. Borg, and John Dominic Crossan (2009). New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers. ISBN: 978‑0‑06‑143072‑5 (224 pp.) plus notes (1 p.) (six citations) and scriptural citations (4 pp.).
This is a wonderful book about the writings of St. Paul. I admit that I have a Paul bias and also a Borg and Crossan bias, so it is no surprise that I am impressed with this book. Most mainstream scholars sort Paul’s thirteen letters into three categories; those definitely written by Paul; those definitely NOT written by Paul; and those about which authorship is uncertain. This book is about the seven letters regarded by most scholars as genuinely written by Paul: Romans, I and II Corinthians, I Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians, and Philemon. The first three chapters present important information to equip the reader with skills for reading Paul’s works. The last three chapters address the critical themes of Paul’s Gospel and his theology, which enlarged and solidified as Paul grew in his faith. Borg and Crossan refer to the author of these genuine letters as the “radical Paul”. The letters written by the genuine Paul are the radical, fundamental, or basic Paul. This is the Paul who was forever changed on the road to Damascus. He was a man who saw Christ and received from him his apostolic mandate. He perceived the fundamental message of the Christ and tried to convey it to Jews and, more successfully, to Gentiles. This “first Paul” is the Paul who, like Jesus, challenged the existing political and religious powers and eventually, like Jesus, paid for his labors with his life. This is a thrilling book about a remarkable man and his thinking, presented by two exceptional scholars. It is a worthy portrayal of the radicalness of Paul’s gospel and is a joy to read. As you can tell, I am very enthusiastic about this book.
MARK FOR EVERYONE by Tom Wright (2001). London England: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. ISBN 0‑664‑22783‑X (226 pp.) plus glossary (18 pp.).
This book is one of many volumes written by N. T. Wright, Bishop of Durham of the Church of England. Like Borg and Crossan, Wright writes for both academic and lay audiences. This book is one in a large series on the books of the New Testament, written for lay people. All in this series are written by Bishop Wright and have “...for Everyone” in their titles. There are no chapters in the books of this series. Instead, each New Testament book under study is broken into small sequential sections. Wright translates each section and then comments on and explains each section. I like Wright’s translations which are uncluttered, to the point and excellent for teaching and learning, especially if one is self-teaching. Wright’s commentaries are interesting and edifying, and often contain a contemporary story which highlights the point of the chosen lines of scripture. It’s fun to compare the translations with other Bible translations and it is also fun to compare Wright’s work with that of Borg’s and/or Crossan’s. I have not read all the books in this series, but all those that I have read have been interesting, well written, and enlightening. Check them out!
THE GNOSTIC GOSPELS, by Elaine Pagels (1989). New York, NY: Random House. ISBN: ‑679‑72453‑2 (151 pp.) plus Introduction (23 pp.) and Notes (21 pp.).
This book introduced Elaine Pagels and her outstanding scholarship to the non‑academic world. It informs the reader about the struggles of the early church and the daunting questions that the early church had to address. Pagels’ exploration of these struggles is well researched with supporting citations to early documents and writings. The reader is well advised to begin by reading the author’s introduction, which provides an overview of the archeological discovery in Egypt (1945) of 52 ancient texts. These texts are called the Nag Hammadi texts and are not the same thing as the Dead Sea Scrolls, found at about the same time. The Nag Hammadi texts are, however, as historically significant as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Since about the second or third Century, we in the church have been living with the answers that the WINNERS of these first Century struggles had expressed. The Nag Hammadi texts give us a good glimpse at the arguments and practices of the losers (the Gnostics) of those first Century struggles. Among other things, Pagels explores for us the early organization of the church. We can see, for example, how earlier diversified forms of church governance, which were more relaxed and open to participation by everyone, gave way slowly to a hierarchy of church offices which (except for the Order of Widows) were filled by men. A study of these texts through Pagels’ enlightened understanding of the languages of their writing and of the history of the early church, is a satisfying experience, well worth the effort.
EATS, SHOOTS AND LEAVES by Lynne Truss (2003). New York, NY, Gotham Books. ISBN 1‑592‑40087‑6 (204 pp.) plus bibliography ( 4.5 pp.).
This book is about grammar...punctuation, to be precise. It is a very funny book. Two of my twenty something granddaughters wondered why ANYONE would read a book about grammar let alone find anything humorous in it. Poor misguided youth! The answer is that many of us would read a book about grammar, especially this book. It is wonderfully and wittily written and it elegantly covers the basics of the use of punctuation marks and why these marks, used appropriately, enhance clarity and writing style. Many English teachers, at every level of instruction, will find this book a final and accurate vindication of their years of hard work. I heartily recommend this book to anyone who writes the English language.