How to Be an Antiracist (Kendi)

 

How to be an antiracist

Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be an Anti-Racist

New York: One World, 2019

There is a curriculum emerging of literature aimed for popular appeal on race awareness in the United States. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow bridged the gap for me between the rigor of academic studies on race and the relevant subject matter and public reasoning necessary for broad audiences. Since then (and I am speaking here about my own progression, not necessarily historical chronology) authors like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Carol Anderson, Michael Erik Dyson, Austin Channing Brown, Robin DiAngelo, and Ijeoma Oluo have all written best-sellers on the subject of race. Any person wanting to seriously grasp the ideas and issues involved in the subject of race today instead of just pontificating on social media based on personal intuition, experience, skimmed internet articles, and twenty minutes of selective reasoning should read at least two or three of these books, if not the ever-expanding roster of worthy academic studies (in my arena it would be authors like James Cone, Willie Jennings, Eboni Marshall Turman, Jennifer Harvey, M. Shawn Copeland and many others). Ibram X. Kendi’s name was added to that list arguably with the success of his book Stamped From the Beginning, but definitively with the publication of How to Be an Anti-Racist. The clarity of reason, honesty, and autobiographical format of the book place it among the first I recommend.

The Gist

This book is part auto-biography, part analysis of racism in terms of interrelated subjects like power, biology, body, color, class, gender, etc. This is how the chapters are divided. Kendi weaves his own life story into the story of racism in our country in the present day. Each progressive vignette sets up a key insight. The unique feature of this book is that most of these insights are gained through self-reflection. Kendi does not just castigate the world around him, but remains methodologically open to the way racism has pervaded his own life and consciousness.

I think it is this particular method of writing about race, in a posture that is simultaneous confessional and reflective and prophetic, that sets this book apart from others and opens Kendi up to uncommon insight even among the other quality books listed above. Weaving autobiography into analysis helps to maintain the attention of the reader, alternating between heavier analysis and more naturally interesting narrative. His willingness to see himself not just as an object of racism, but as a person who has had to wrestle with his own version of racist ideas and impulses especially disarms white readers—even (especially) the liberal ones—who are not inclined toward self-examination. It’s not a necessary tactic, but it is likely more effective than full-on invective. But it is these two elements together that I think allow Kendi to resist ideological definition, which is something the world always needs. There is no sense in which this book is a capitulation to a racist society; a kind of “both sides have a point” middle ground that we often mistake these days for objectivity. Rather, even the insights that don’t fit easily into progressive narratives about race, ultimately serve to illuminate, resist, and disassemble racist power.

What Stuck

At the outset of each chapter Kendi provides a dictionary definition for the terms the chapter discusses. He argues in the introduction that straightforward definitions are vital for the antiracist project. Consider the opening of the first chapter:

Racist: One who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea.

Antiracist: One who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea. (13)

Further on he will define racist and antiracists ideas and policies. This isn’t a dry logic textbook, but a simple yet effective way of explaining what racism and antiracism is. It is through these definitions that Kendi is able to speak clearly about racism in every facet of our society, including, controversially, his claim that he has himself (a Black man) been a racist in certain respects. Or that racism is not primarily a matter of individual hate or ignorance, but of the consolidation and protection of power and power hierarchies through systematic policies. Or that the view of marginal people (of themselves or by others) as victims or otherwise powerless is demeaning and overlooks their innate dignity and ability. Or that ‘racist’ is not a state of being or permanent writ of cancellation, but a judgment of behaviors and invitation to rectify them.

These and other insights are not just a product of Kendi’s natural genius, but of the simple and clear method of establishing definitions and following them where they logically lead.

Representative Quote(s)

This is the consistent function of racist ideas—and of any kind of bigotry more broadly: to manipulate us into seeing people as the problem, instead of the policies that ensnare them. (8)

“Racist” is not—as Richard Spencer argues—a pejorative. It is not the worst word in the English language; it is not the equivalent of a slur. It is descriptive, and the only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it—and then dismantle it. The attempt to turn this usefully descriptive term into an almost unusable slur is, of course, designed to do the opposite: to freeze us into inaction. (9)

The most threatening racist movement is not the alt-right’s unlikely drive for a White ethnostate but the regular American’s drive for a “race-neutral” one. The construct of race neutrality actually feeds White nationalist victimhood by positing the notion that any policy protecting or advancing non-White Americans toward equity is “reverse discrimination.” (20)

These are not permanent tattoos. No one becomes a racist or antiracist. We can only strive to be one or the other. We can unknowingly strive to be a racist. We can knowingly strive to be an antiracist. Like fighting an addiction, being an antiracist requires persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination. (23)

The history of the racialized world is a three-way fight between assimilationists, segregationists, and antiracists. Antiracist ideas are based in the truth that racial groups are equals in all the ways they are different, assimilationist ideas are rooted in the notion that certain racial groups are culturally or behaviorally inferior, and segregationist ideas spring from a belief in genetic racial distinction and fixed hierarchy. (31)

I still identify as Black. Not because I believe Blackness, or race, is a meaningful scientific category but because our societies, our policies, our ideas, our histories, and our cultures have rendered race and made it matter. I am among those who have been degraded by racist ideas, suffered under racist policies, and who have nevertheless endured and built movements and cultures to resist or at least persist through this madness. (38)

But generalizing the behavior of racist White individuals to all White people is as perilous as generalizing the individual faults of people of color to entire races. “He acted this way because he is black. She acted that way because she is Asian.” We often see and remember the race and not the individual. This is racist categorizing, this stuffing of our experiences with individuals into color-marked racial closets. An antiracist treats and remembers individuals as individuals. “She acted that way,” we should say, “because she is racist.” (44)

How can I critique their ethnic racism and ignore my ethnic racism? That is the central double standard in ethnic racism: loving one’s position on the ladder above other ethnic groups and hating one’s position below that of other ethnic groups. It is angrily trashing the racist ideas about one’s own group but happily consuming the racist ideas about other ethnic groups. It is failing to recognize that racist ideas we consume about others came from the same restaurant and the same cook who used the same ingredients to make different degrading dishes for us all. (66)

But there is a thin line between an antiracist saying individual Blacks have suffered trauma and a racist saying Blacks are a traumatized people. There is a similarly thin line between an antiracist saying slavery was debilitating and a racist saying Blacks are a debilitated people. (97)

Like every other racist idea, the powerless defense underestimates Black people and overestimates White people. It erases the small amount of Black power and expands the already expansive reach of White power. (140)

Whenever Black people voluntarily gather among themselves, integrationists do not se spaces of Black solidarity created to separate Black people from racism. They see spaces of White hate. They do not see spaces of cultural solidarity, of solidarity against racism. They see spaces of segregation against White people. Integrationists do not see these spaces as the movement of Black people toward Black people. Integrationists think about them as a movement away from White people. They then equate that movement away from White people with the White segregationist movement away from Black people. Integrationists equate spaces for the survival of Black bodies with spaces for the survival of White supremacy. (175)

The most effective protests create an environment whereby changing the racist policy becomes in power’s self-interest, like desegregating businesses because the sit-ins are driving away customers, like increasing wages to restart production, like giving teachers raises to resume schooling, like passing a law to attract a well-organized force of donors and voters. But it is difficult to create that environment, since racist power makes laws that illegalize most protest threats. Organizing and protesting are much harder and more impactful than mobilizing and demonstrating. Seizing power is much harder than protesting power and demonstrating its excesses. (216)

 

 

Laughing at the Devil (Hall)

Laughing at the Devil

Amy Laura Hall, Laughing at the Devil: Seeing the World with Julian of Norwich

Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018.

***

On the Difference between a Ninny and a Sage

In Laughing at the Devil Amy Laura Hall describes her first serious engagement with Julian of Norwich. As a new professor at Duke she was referred to Julian as a spiritual writer worth integrating into the curriculum of a class she was going to teach. The friend who referred Julian cited her famous line “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well,” about which Hall thought, “No, I’d never heard of her, and she sounds stupid.”[1] Later she embraces the criticism of a certain misunderstanding of these words saying, “when I first heard the phrase ‘All shall be well’ I was pretty sure that Julian was a ninny. . . . The last thing I wanted to do was encourage Christians tilted already toward cheap and apolitical grace to read a woman who would tell them they were right to stay obeisant to bullies.”[2]

In ministry the difference between being a ‘ninny’—like Julian sounds—and a ‘sage’—like Julian ostensibly is—is thin. The life of ministry is a life in proximity, not just to people, but to their inner lives and outer needs; a life where one often risks being a ninny in the attempt to say and do what is needed. Ministry happens when the people you encounter begin to invite you into their lives and share their experiences with you—past, present, and future—with some uncertain, but implicit understanding that God is being carried between you. Often the middling events of life are not what merits a pastoral visit, which is a real missed opportunity to see the divine even among the mundane. Most often the proximity happens in the vulnerable moments, or the intense moments. The ministry life ends up being one in proximity to great joys and great pains and great anxieties, and great shames.

After a decade in ministry I can say with confidence that the joys slip easily from memory, while the rest linger like ghosts. This could be due to an overly-cynical disposition. Or maybe because I listen to too much angsty music. Or maybe because ministers don’t get to grieve (or often don’t know how). In the midst of suffering we have a role to play. It is hard to account for the why pains and anxieties and shames linger; there just may be something about human suffering that leaves a deeper mark.

This brings us back to Julian of Norwich and Dr. Hall’s initial impression, because I share her instinct. Sit at the bedside of a twenty-something young man dying from cancer with his mother begging God for healing and his father detached—more out of an instinct for survival than apathy—and see how hollow “All shall be well” rings; how stupid you would immediately feel saying it. This is an extreme example, to be fair, but all too real in the pastoral life, and smaller losses still challenge the legitimacy of those words in their own ways. Hall extends the suffering that these words presume to address even broader into our social and political lives. “All shall be well” does not seem like the right thing to write on bombs dropped by drones on middle-eastern villages or spoken in diplomatic talks thereafter. Or with the threat of the current pandemic these words seem useful only to placate the consciences of people insulated from any substantial effect by power and privilege. On the face of it, Hall’s impression seems correct: she sounds stupid.

But Hall writes a book about Norwich, and people don’t usually write book-length treatments of authors they despise. Having read Hall’s book and having also read Julian myself some years back (and now spending a little more time with Julian), I find with a lot of help from Hall that mysterious allure to these words and to Julian’s writings in general. So, I want to spend this review thinking about the difference between the words of a ninny and the words of a sage or a visionary. What turns “All shall be well” from a pithy bit of pious vomit into words that ground our consciousness and empower us to live in and through the joys and pains of life?

II

Part of this difference must be accounted for by what these words could (or should) mean. Does “all shall be well” mean that with (or even without) faith my problems will be solved, especially in the way that I desire them to be? That my pains will be resolved and wounds healed and dreams fulfilled and wishes granted? Does “all shall be well” mean that everything is going according to God’s plan? Even things like pendemics and war and economic exploitation and ordinary vices that cause and perpetuate trauma? Is this all just the conflicting action in a story that otherwise ends happily ever after?

I just finished reading my kids the classic story Where the Red Fern Grows. One aspect of the book I had forgotten was that at every major juncture the boy engages in a little bargaining with God, asking God to help him with this or that obstacle and getting confirmation at each turn that God was indeed helping out. This theological game comes to a head at the end of the book when (***SPOILER***) the boy’s dogs die and the boy, beyond consolation, cannot understand why they had to die. I think that made sense to me when I read the story for the first time as a young kid who mapped the ordered and controlled nature of his own childhood onto a theological vision of reality. There was a reason (eventually) for everything I did, and I must have figured that there was a reason for everything in the world as well. But on the other side of my fair share of life’s pains and tragedies, and a good deal more than my fair share of pastoral crises and tragedies in ministry, I now see that view as less than accurate or helpful. Sure, appealing to some grand divine scheme can seem like an instinctively helpful thing to do in cases of deep pain, like holding your hand to a burn. But it doesn’t help much in the moment and does more harm than good in the long term. So if that is what these words mean, if that is all they mean, if they are just some theological placebo, then I’d think they’re the words of a ninny.

Hall processes a better understanding of Julian through creative and critical theological interpretation and framing Julian in historical and theological context. For instance, Hall asks how might the meaning of “all shall be well” be changed if we consider that one of the major roles that religion played in 15th century England was as a form of social control. Ecclesiastical structures and leaders aligned themselves with kingly authority, dictating what could not be questioned on the pain not just of death but of a God poised to condemn the sinner for all eternity. If the authorities are saying “God will smite you (in this life and the next) for breaking one of our many rules” then how audacious it would be to say “It’s okay, God isn’t standing ready to punish you the moment you step out of line.” “All shall be well” breathes defiance, yet a resistance characterized by serenity and trust. The broader dimensions of Julian’s writings attend to the spiritual and psychological effects of systemic evils. Where oppressive systems desire to break an individual—body and spirit—her visions of Jesus having subdued the devil for the humor of those once tormented redeem us and restore us. Hall writes,

The cross did not have to be. God made everything from nothing, and so creation did not have to be. The cross is also the definition of everything that is, so that you and I and Tom Joad and anyone suffering under any system that renders us nothing know ourselves saved. We are saved not by our suffering. My suffering is not necessary. Jesus Christ allows me to feel and know and see that my suffering has not rendered my life meaningless. I have not been eternally dismembered by pain or eternally forgotten by the accidents of the absurdist world around me.[3]

There is then this historically contextualized meaning that reveals the socio-political ramifications of a statement such as this. But there is also the meaning of this phrase as a serious theological claim that allows it to be a real bludgeon to oppressive systems, rather than (only) a smart retort. It does not mean that suffering will be avoided or abated, that the world is some grand orchestrated drama with an inevitably happy ending. Read in historical and literary and theological context, Julian’s words attend to the saving grace of Jesus in broader terms—saved from our own faults and failures to be sure, but saved also from the literal soul-crushing efforts of oppressive systems and trying times.

III

Another part of the difference between the ninny and the sage seems to be not just the meaning, but the effect of their words. If “all shall be well” is used to downplay suffering, patronize people in pain, or keep people theologically in line, then I would be inclined to think the person who spoke these words was a ninny.

As I’m writing it seems the whole world is (or is supposed to be) on quarantine due to the outbreak of a new and particularly malicious virus. As a minister I have obligations to speak words both of caution and comfort. But if I look to people who have contracted this virus, or to those rightly anxious because they are at higher risk of serious harm were they to contract the virus, or to those whose jobs and incomes are crippled by this quarantine, and say “all shall be well” it might sound like I’m trying to minimize or downplay the seriousness of their conditions. Or it might sound like I’m telling them not to worry or grieve or lament because of some ephemeral hope that God will magic them their health or jobs back. Or it might come across as a manifestation of my own anxiety that the institution of the church will be disrupted, that the tithes will be irregular or attendance even further decreased. And indeed, it seems many clergy are saying offering these words in these ways. The insistence on coming together as a church community during this time are more often to do with principles of organization management and corporate leadership than anything remotely theological.

Hall says in the preface that she has “come to hear Julian’s laughter as a call to holy audacity,” that these visions gave Julian “the courage to resist, to defy, and to laugh” in the face of real and imminent evil. Moreover, these words give her “a dose of sanity to help me move on to another day, to face more of the bloody truths of my time.”[4] Part of what makes Julian’s words so significant is that they suggest consequential actions and solutions that resist ideological systems. And, importantly, they offer the spiritual and emotional resources to exercise that action. Hall helpfully demonstrates that Julian does not bypass the difficulties of defying evil, or downplay human suffering and vulnerability. She writes,

Unless you have a thick and enduringly lizard-like skin, reckoning with suffering while saying “God will provide” seems either stupid or cruel or under the influence of deadening pharmaceuticals. Watching people rage and weep over the non-sense that is a tragic or effectively manipulated loss still renders me speechless. But turning again to Julian’s visions has helped me to think about what it means that I still keep arguing, and hoping, that what Julian saw is true. I want someday to laugh at the Devil and at the carnival that is all of us being barfed up individually, re-membered by God, and celebrating together.[5]

On the one hand, there is no absolute guarantee here. Hall underscores that we trust and “hope” in the truth of Julian’s vision and words. “All shall be well” in this regard becomes more a defiant resistance to despair and evil. There is an honesty here in this vulnerability, a way of trusting that all shall be well even if how we want it to be well does not pan out. On the other hand it is grounded in the assurance of this honesty. “All shall be well” attends to the failure of evil to endure, and witnesses to the reparative power of good. This slogan does not tell us to get over whatever we are going through or manipulate us into programmatic behavior or offer false and fleeting comfort. It tells us that suffering will end eventually regardless, and we will outlast it. These words, at least as Julian writes them, steadies the reader “in the shadow of your wings” as the psalmist wrote.

IV

There are probably other factors in differentiating the ninny from the sage—life experience, tone, relationship history, and so on. But what Hall fleshes out well is what a phrase like this, and Julian’s thought as a whole, means and what it implies for how we live our lives. “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well” echoes in the mind, pushing back against the finality of evil in our lives and in our world, and against those that would weaponize physical, economic, political, emotional, and spiritual violence; and against those pains and wounds that come as a natural part of being finite and vulnerable things.

This might sound a little brooding, but I think in finishing up this little reflection that its worth underlining how lovely and brilliant Julian’s vision of life really is. It seems to me it is the ninny who wields “all shall be well” and other such platitudes like theological quick-fixes who is the one with the truly dim view of the world. They look away from the world as it is to an imaginary future where things will be magically fixed—or at least explained—because they view the world at present as intolerably disordered. I don’t mean to propose that anything less than a clear and full embrace of the indifference and cruelty of the real world is faithless; that people aren’t entitled to having a spiritual pain threshold or can’t indulge in the comforts and consolations of God. That would rule Julian out as well. I am saying, however, that the ninny thinks so little of reality that he refuses to step foot there for longer than he absolutely has to.

The sage, however, witnesses to the present as the point at which the reconciliation of all things occurs. The sage sees clearly the disorder of the world, to be sure, but refuses to grant absolute authority to this disorder, or to abandon the world to it. The sage’s world is bigger. Where the ninny would see only pain the sage sees also the enduring value of even the weakest and least significant things. This, the ninny can’t see; he can’t enjoy broken things, or comprehend holy chaos, or bear any embarrassment, or attend to his own misshapen heart, or, indeed, laugh at the devil. Where the ninny abandons the world to its disorder, the sage laughs at it, having also seen the inadequacy of evil and endurance of all things held together in the grace of God. And I suppose that’s the real difference, while the ninny flees, the sage laughs.


[1] Amy Laura Hall, Laughing at the Devil: Seeing the World with Julian of Norwich (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018), xv.

[2] Ibid., 49.

[3] Ibid., 83.

[4] Ibid., xii-xiii.

[5] Ibid., 66.

Is God Happy? (Kolakowski)

Kolakowski

Leszek Kolakowski, Is God Happy? Selected Essays

New York: Basic Books, 2013

Leszek’s Loneliness

The Polish philosopher/theologian Leszek Kolakowski wrote an essay entitled “How to Be a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist” and that’s probably a great start to getting to know him. This essay speaks to the singularity of Kolakowski and his frequent refusal to trade on ideas just for the sake of remaining true to a party or school of thought. In an age where people are becoming—or ought to be—increasingly skeptical of parties—political, social, or religious—this iconoclasm ought to be at least intriguing. That essay is not in this particular book. But it’s a great introduction and sampling of his thought.

Kolakowski is an interesting theologian if only for his background. He came to prominence in post-World War II Poland as a staunch explicator of Marxism and key ideological figure in the communist movement, having once been labeled the “high priest” of communism. A trip to Stalinist Russia in 1950 shook Kolakowski and put him on a path toward deviation from the party line. By 1966 he had been expelled from the Polish United Workers Party and in ’68 he lost his job at Warsaw University. He spent the remainder of his career at prestigious universities in England and the United States.

One expects from this sort of narrative (and geographical movement) to then read the story of a defector, a convert even. It’s true enough that he would become a supporter of democratic principles in the course of his latter career, championing the anti-communist Solidarity movement in Poland, and that he was optimistic (to the point of admitted naivete) in the virtues of democratic societies. But Kolakowski was no capitalist any more than he was a communist. He was not an anti-Marxist any more than he became an avid reader of Adam Smith. Much to the chagrin of conservative apologists who would prefer to mine him for ammunition than to actually listen and understand him, Kolakowski defies ideological affiliation.

In some respects the label “revisionist Marxist” fits (though he disavowed this title later in his career). Kolakowski does not turn a blind eye to the cruelty of totalitarian communism, but neither does he give up on the values that lie at the heart of communist thought—a world without greed, where work (and human life) is not a commodity, a society that resists the maxim of economic growth at all costs and instead creates space for human flourishing and care for the most vulnerable. Kolakowski has a lot to say about why communism in the post-WWII era was destined to fail at achieving these goals, but he does not deny the validity of these goals or claim with infinite certainty that an alternative system can fulfill them either.

“I am entirely on your side on this issue. I share without restrictions your (and Marx’s, and Shakespeare’s, and many others’) analysis to the effect that it is very deplorable that people’s minds are occupied with the endless pursuit of money, that needs have a magic power of infinite growth and that the profit motive, not the use value, rules production. Your superiority consists in that you know exactly how to get rid of all this and I do not.” (125 “My Correct Views on Everything”)

What do we make of a Marxist who criticizes Marxism? Of one not entirely at home in capitalistic systems either—fully aware that neither system has manifested in an equitable and just society that well? What do we make of a Christian theologian deeply critical of Christian theology and practice? What do we make of a leftist who defends the sentiment of the Berkeley riots in the 60’s but staunchly criticized aspects of them as well? What do we make of a conservative-liberal-socialist? We make of them what we want, or we let them disappear, not likely out of maliciousness, but more because we do not know what to do with them. We could call this exile.

Not all exile is admirable. Some of it is the result of stubbornness and pride and resentment. It is possible to be skeptical or nit-picky to the point of being a bore. Finding a flaw in something is no act of genius. Imperfection is the hallmark of existence. “Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. (I am large, I contain multitudes)” writes Whitman. It is also possible to let one’s (false) sense of integrity deny one the reward of habitual commitment to a community or practice. There is no contradiction between commitment to, say a religious community, and a fiercely critical approach to one’s lived faith. It is possible, once again, to blur the lines between being an independent thinker and one who is existentially indecisive—unable to choose between two or more viable options. It is possible to live in the privilege of not having to choose a side, but to let things play out and declare allegiance once a clear winner seems to emerge. It is possible, finally, to confuse being an independent thinker and hanging on to morally bankrupt views. It is like a person claiming on the one hand to oppose racism and all other forms of inequality, but on the other hand arguing that white nationalist screed makes some compelling points. Any or all of these postures could result in becoming a kind of social or theological orphan as well, but there’s no virtue in these.

But in Kolakowski we sense something worth calling noble. He writes: You will be called anti-communist if you do not strongly believe that the actual Soviet (or Chinese) system is the most perfect society the human mind has invented so far, or if you wrote a piece of purely scholarly work on the history of communism, without lies (126-27).  To be anti-communist in my setting is a given, but to Kolakowski communism was his world, his country, his people, his land, the mother that birthed him. It is like being called anti-American for harboring well-documented and reasoned claims against the efficacy of capitalism as it has been practiced. The point here is not to debate which system is preferable, it is that keeping a clear mind and conscientious heart requires a fundamental faithlessness in systems and communities and institutions that otherwise demand our allegiance. Everyone wants to be a prophet these days; no one wants to go without honor.

Kolakowski’s loneliness, however, is exactly why I think he’s one of the more pressing thinkers that have been largely overlooked (or co-opted) in our age. In general his essays are equal parts wit and classic philosophical reasoning and clarity. He is an “easy” read even for the layperson because he’s humorous and sarcastic, and because his rhetoric is rich and biting and insightful without being bogged down by jargon. The skill of a master is to make something complex seem simple, and that is what Kolakowski excels at.

In particular, his essays on totalitarianism and criticisms of (Stalinist) Marxism have unnerving parallels in the move of democratic institutions toward their own brand of authoritarian rule. His essays on religion and various problems in theology combine the strength of logical and informed reasoning with the passion of someone for whom these issues matter in their bones. The problem of evil is not just a tool to refute superstition or a logical proof to defend God, but becomes reframed as a rational exercise of someone wounded by the experience of evil.

But I suppose I’m veering a bit too close to propaganda here. Below I’ve provided a set of quotes that are aimed at luring people to read the essays that they come from—all of which can be found in volume advertised at the top.

Representative Quote(s)

Let us consider what happens when the [totalitarian] ideal has been effectively achieved. People remember only what they are taught to remember today and the content of their memory changes overnight, if needed. . . . In effect they are no longer human beings. Consciousness is memory, as Bergson would have put it. Creatures whose memory is effectively manipulated, programmed, and controlled from outside are no longer persons in any recognizable sense and therefore no longer human. . . . This is what totalitarian regimes unceasingly try to achieve. People whose memory—personal or collective—has been nationalized, become state-owned and perfectly malleable, totally controllable, are entirely at the mercy of their rulers. . . . There is no applicable criterion of truth except for what is proclaimed as true at any given moment. And so the lie really becomes the truth, or at least the distinction between true and false in their usual meaning has disappeared. This is the great cognitive triumph of totalitarianism: it can no longer be accused of lying, because it has succeeded in abrogating the very idea of truth. (55-56 “Totalitarianism and the Virtue of the Lie”)

This is a banal but important point which I hope is clear to you. I simply refuse to join people whose hearts are bleeding to death when they hear about any, major or minor (and rightly condemnable), injustice in the US and suddenly become wise historiosophists or cool rationalists when told about worse horrors of the new alternative society. (121 “My Correct Views on Everything”)

You are proud of not going to Spain for political reasons. Unprincipled that I am, I was there twice. (123 “My Correct Views on Everything”)

I am entirely on your side on this issue. I share without restrictions your (and Marx’s, and Shakespeare’s, and many others’) analysis to the effect that it is very deplorable that people’s minds are occupied with the endless pursuit of money, that needs have a magic power of infinite growth and that the profit motive, not the use value, rules production. Your superiority consists in that you know exactly how to get rid of all this and I do not. (125 “My Correct Views on Everything”)

All those who, in the age of religious wars and confessional disputes, sought a return to the mythical simplicity of the Gospels and wanted to free Christianity from creeds and catechisms, leaving just its moral content, constantly went back to Erasmus and drew on this thought. (180 “Erasmus and his God”)

Ever since Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God a hundred years ago, there have been no more happy atheists. . . . Compare the godless world of Diderot, Helvetius, and Feuerbach with the godless world of Kafka, Camus, and Sartre. The collapse of Christianity so eagerly awaited and so joyfully greeted by the Enlightenment turned out—to the extent that it really occurred—to be almost simultaneous with the collapse of the Enlightenment. (184-85 “Anxiety about God in an Ostensibly Godless Age”)

Christianity can engage in politics and social conflicts, but if it is to escape self-destruction, it must perceive all temporal goods as relative. Since one cannot, in today’s world, be entirely apolitical in good faith, the Church, too, insofar as it is part of culture, should assume its political responsibilities; but this does not mean that it should identify itself with any existing political organization or movement, or treat political values and goals as ends in themselves. The Church’s past links with ossified social orders which harked back to the previous century are no less dangerous for the cause of Christianity than new attempts to link Christian ideas to the political ideologies of revolutionary messianism. Neither of these tendencies encourages the hope of a resurgent vitality of the Christian message; in both, one can sense the temptation to subordinate this message to temporal ends—to transform God into a tool, a potential object of human manipulation. The theocratic tendency—that vain and disastrous hope, enfeebled but still breathing, that humanity can be dragged to redemption by force—and the ostensibly opposing tendency—the attempt to embed Christian values in the framework of this or that revolutionary ideology—share one fundamental feature: both transform God into an instrument for attaining ends from which a Christian perspective, whether or not they are justified, should never be seen as ultimate ends. Both run the risk of transforming the Christian community into a political party. Thus both are symptoms of the inner corrosion of Christianity. As so often throughout history, the greatest danger today comes from the enemy within the gates. (189-90 “Anxiety about God in an Ostensibly Godless Age”)

Perhaps—and this is of course only speculation—dechristianization, insofar as it accompanied the decline of the temporal power of the Church, will prove beneficial, or indeed salutary, to the cause of Christianity. (191 “Anxiety about God in an Ostensibly Godless Age”)

But there is a mass phenomenon today which really does seem to deserve the name, and it plays a significant role in people’s lives. It is the worship of celebrities: rock stars, actresses, sportsmen. This is more than merely collective worship: it draws in huge numbers of people who through participating in it are able to experience a strange feeling of collective identity. The spectacle is indeed a strange one for those observing it from the outside, for what kind of identity can be attained through the worship of a football player? What values are created through the hysterical euphoria of a crowd of young people at a concert? How are great goddesses of the screen produced, like Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich or Greta Garbo? Quite recently we were able to witness an extraordinary event in the history of idolatry, namely the funeral of Princess Diana. Here was a woman of no education, who devoted her brief life mostly to building her ‘image’, to (extraordinarily successful) self-publicity and the creation of her own cult, and who at the moment of her own death became a genuine source of identity for countless millions of people. Millions thought of this young woman, who probably never in her life wore the same dress twice and traveled only by private jet or, more modestly, first class, as ‘one of us’. Instead of envy and resentment she provoked a sort of dream-feeling of identity. Television created her, but television creates many famous people and few of them become genuine idols. Manifestations of pseudo-religious worship are omnipresent in our culture, and their ubiquity naturally prompts questions about their source. (207-08 “Why a Calf? Idolatry and the Death of God”)

But what if there are people who expect punctuality without legitimate grounds, thoughtlessly, for no good reason whatsoever? . . . . If there are such people, then unpunctuality becomes even more beneficial, indeed virtuous, for it will be just punishment for their intellectual sluggishness, lack of logic and groundless expectations. It would be our duty to flaunt our unpunctuality before such people as often as possible, on a grand scale, enthusiastically and without restraint. (223 “In Praise of Unpunctuality”)

 

 

 

 

The Solace of Fierce Landscapes (Lane)

Solace of Fierce Landscapes

Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality.

New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

……….

This is the best book I’ve read this year. Maybe in the last five years…ten even. Maybe ever! Who knows? It’s hard to tell. Science can only explain so much. It’s a bit of an overstatement, but I hope that gives a sense of how much I liked this book, and act as a sort of premeditated apology for when I end many of my upcoming conversations and emails with “Oh, also there’s this book I think you really should read…”

Here is a book that does the rare achievement of synthesizing academic study, compelling story-telling, and genuine, unpretentious wisdom. It has my vote for one of the works I hope endures as part of the canon of Christian spiritual writings.

The Gist

I think it might be best to describe this book in terms of layers. As the title indicates, it is first a book about desert and mountain spirituality. Spiritual writers through the centuries have lived in and been inspired by these two sparse landscapes, and the kind of wisdom they produce takes on unique characteristics that Lane hopes to help navigate the reader through. Lane’s assumption here is that geography matters—the character of our spaces inform how we see the world, the kinds of experiences we have and how we interpret those experiences. And by extension, how we care for our environment matters. Lane helps the reader to see how people who have either lived in or been entranced by actual geographical spaces of desert and mountain begin to learn different lessons about life and faith. Here is a book that helps makes those connections clear.

The second layer of this book is that Lane uses the last three years he spent with his mother as she was dying of cancer as a story that helps him (and us) grasp the nature of desert and mountain spirituality. Chapters that discuss in historical and theological perspective the spiritual writings of the past are interspersed with autobiographical reflections on his frequent trips into the desert and the mountains as well as the ‘desert’ of his time with his mother as he nurtured her through her moments of holy dying. What could have been a droll but informative book is made captivating by Lane’s exceptional story and story-telling ability. Here is where this book can meet both experts and laypeople.

The third layer is a motif that runs through the book, which pushes back against the kind of superficial and pop-spirituality that seems to satisfy people more like a drug and less like a salve. It dulls the edges of our spiritual lives, makes us numb and yet ever-craving more like some kind of mystical fix. My words, not his, but I suspect he’d agree. The essence of desert and mountain spirituality, suggests Lane, lies in its indifference which borders on cruelty. It can soothe and scald, it does not supply easy or quick answers, it is not interested in selling anything, appealing to consumers, or becoming amenable to those who are potentially interested. In a way this book itself takes on that personality—having garnered some critical attention, but then flying way below the radar. I wrote a thesis on integrating ascetic spirituality/ethics in non-monastic contexts in 2010—this book was published in 1998, and I had never heard of it until last year.

What Stuck

To repeat myself a bit, the admittedly shallow thing that first comes to mind upon reflection is the critique of contemporary pop-spirituality that surfaces regularly in the book. I know a lot people have received a lot of good and helpful and healing insights from your Oprahs and Deepak Choprahs and Sarah Youngs and I’m not trying to take away from that. But inevitably the cracks begin to come to the surface with stuff like that and reality or conscience demands more. Think of this book as the next step in the spiritual journey, or as something that moves in the stream of spiritual maturity, itself not flawless or the pinnacle, but something more meaningful and realistic and substantial.

The other thing that stuck was the way that the author grappled caringly with the death of his mother—how this time of processing became a kind of lens or perhaps journey through which he sorted through his own baggage with the help of desert and mountain spirituality. This aspect of the book allowed the wisdom of the desert and mountains to go from abstract and potential to something more realistic and believable.

Representative Quote(s)

“My fear is that much of what we call “spirituality” today is overly sanitized and sterile, far removed from the anguish of pain, the anchoredness of place. Without the tough-minded discipline of desert-mountain experience, spirituality loses its bite, its capacity to speak prophetically to its culture, its demand for justice. Avoiding pain and confrontation, it makes no demands, assumes no risks. . . . It resists every form of desert perversity, dissolving at last into a spirituality that protects its reader from the vulnerability it was meant to provoke. The desert, in the end, will have none of it.” (20)

“Mountain and desert territory connects people symbolically, if not literally, to places of ascent (or places of threatening expanse). They remind them of things they would rather forget, taking them to the edges from which the human psyche normally recoils. Such places have nothing to do with comfort. . . . Another way of saying this is that desert and mountain terrain provokes the identification and reordering of boundaries. It confronts people with their edges.” (37)

“But when the drama fails, when we grow weary of the intense pressure of life on the edge, we’re forced to reconsider the myths by which we live. War is not the principle metaphor of human existence. Death is not always an enemy. Life is more than a matter of breathless contention, triumphing over obstacles, denying the monsters of our own feelings. The dragons of the ordinary invite us back to simplicity and a quiet acceptance of life’s rhythms.” (97)

“That’s why the life of the monk seems so utterly foreign, even frightening. Our conditioning as members of a consumer society prevents us from abandoning hope that, with sufficient planning, we might yet be able to see and do everything. To move slowly and deliberately through the world, attending to one thing at a time, strikes us as radically subversive, even un-American.” (189)

“Ultimately, failure was the most valuable truth the desert monastery had to teach me. Disillusionment marks every new beginning in the spiritual life. I went there with the intent of imitating monastic practices of asceticism and prayer, of achieving (within the span of eight short days, no less) a grandly self-authenticating desert experience. It’s the perennial temptation of the acquisitive self, trying to “cultivate pseudo-experiences” that will fill an inner void so as to make even emptiness itself an “object of experience.” We never tire of the effort to manipulate and possess idealized states of consciousness. Many people would rather have an “experience” of God than God himself.” (219)

Conclusion

There’s a lot that should be learned about spirituality from this book at a purely intellectual level, but Lane takes it to the next level and makes a contribution to the great conversation of Christian spirituality itself.

Read this book.

Shameless (Bolz-Weber)

Shameless

Nadia Bolz-Weber, Shameless: A Sexual Reformation

New York: Convergent Books, 2019.

……….

Most of the books I read are old, and I tend to like it that way. Their time in the zeitgeist has passed so their contemporary value has to be judged on what endures past that episode in time and culture that inspired it. I am an anti-hipster when it comes to books: I like books you’ve probably already forgotten. Still, on occasion something like Nadia Bolz-Weber’s new book Shameless comes out and I let myself get caught up in the moment. The controversial nature of her book made it even more tempting.

As I dug into the book I kept waiting for that moment where she fully crosses the Rubicon. I read the introductory chapter and wasn’t struck by anything that inflammatory. “Maybe,” I thought, “She’s wanting to ease into the heresy.” I read the next couple of chapters and felt like she must be really playing the long game. Her reader is going to be lulled into a sense of security in the blanket of orthodoxy before she just sets the whole thing on fire in the last chapters. Clever strategy, Bolz. By the end of the book I was disappointed, in a sense. I never found that point that a lot of her critics seemed to sense instantly where she jumps the theological shark.

Granted, the difference between this book being offensive or life-giving depends in large part on how comfortable one is with people leading messy lives. A life in pastoral care can be helpful in getting over any idealistic notions of oneself or the rest of humanity. A lot of it involves cultivating the ability to deal with the sins, failures, or mistakes in one’s own and other people’s lives without jumping to condemnation or correction, but to first accept them for who they are and witness to the life of God in them. Applied to sexuality, this means being less bothered by the idea that somebody might have a sexual encounter before they are married and more concerned with how it might have affected them—whether it was consensual, whether they feel loved or shamed, how these experiences cultivate wisdom and the ability to make spiritually healthy choices about sex.

And grant also that I found myself disagreeing with parts of the book. I won’t be coy. I find myself much less ambivalent about teens having sex, or of the virtues of casual sex than she sometimes comes across. The sacredness of sex and its astonishing potential to generate joy or pain suggest to me that it finds its proper telos in the vulnerable covenant of marriage or at the very least having an internal logic that thrives on the kind of intimacy and vulnerability that our motivations for pleasure or social aplomb tend to work against.[1] And I also don’t know what kind of pornography she thinks is healthy. She is too vague on this point, and I am inclined to think that most of what could be categorized as pornography is inherently destructive on any number of levels. It must be noted, however, that disagreement or desynchronization in perspective does not mean antagonism, or that what I perceive as a flaw in someone else’s thought does not mean their entire project is doomed, or indeed that I understood them as well as they deserve.

BUT…

I think Bolz-Weber’s critics often overstate her own position. Nothing in the book led me to believe that she is interested in promoting anything like a life of wanton, prodigious sex, or that what she seemed to endorse about pornographic material went much beyond the kind of erotica that has been a staple of media for some time–the kind that can’t end soon enough when they pop up in movies we watch with our parents. Moreover, contrary to the reactionaries, none of what she says about either of these topics is reducible to a simple, normative ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Only witch-hunters will be upset by her reflections on these and other topics in human sexuality. The rest of us will find them intelligent, empathetic, realistic, insightful, and even pastoral.

MORE IMPORTANTLY…

Bolz-Weber does two things that make this book an important read. First, she refuses simple black-and-white approaches to questions on sexuality. She tries to attend to the complexities of life instead of ignoring them or acting like things, especially regarding sex, are simpler than they actually are. Second, she tries to rethink a genuinely Christian and faithful approach to sexuality outside of the logical foundations of purity culture. This is absolutely key. You will misunderstand what she is doing if you don’t grasp this point. This book is not so much a reformation as a renovation.

Purity culture has its merits. I don’t resent everything my parents and teachers tried to teach me, and I honor their attempt at trying to give guidance and protection in an ever-changing world. I cannot but guess at the many ways my own children will balk at the  mistakes I will make in this arena. But a full-blooded purity culture has been incredibly destructive to people’s lives not just socially and emotionally, but spiritually. This is the major starting point of Bolz-Weber’s book. Throughout the book she does not just do the demolition work of tearing down this shaky foundation, but also attempts to rekindle our ability to think about sexuality on a more spiritually and psychologically sound basis. If she comes across as radical or as promoting sexual activity beyond norms that people steeped in Christian culture feel comfortable with, it is because she is thinking on different terms. And she is asking us also to think through whether our assumptions about what sex is and what good sex looks like have to do with “biblical principles” or historically- and culturally-conditioned norms read conveniently back into the biblical compendium.

It is this implicit contest in the book about what faith really looks like and sounds like in terms of our thinking and acting on sexuality that points to the real genius of the book. As I read the book not only did I not find her promoting anything beyond the pale of sexual behavior. Instead I encountered over and over again a deep religious sensitivity in the way she talked about and envisioned faithful sexuality. In the end I felt this book is a work of Christian spirituality with sexuality as its motif. The real accomplishment of this book is that it presents a vision of sexuality that attends to its deepest significance of sex: that it is not just a mechanism for human pleasure or procreation, but that it is central to humanity’s existential grasp of God’s love and salvation.

All the books that championed the purity culture I grew up reading talked a big game about the joys of sex. I think it helps people who are otherwise adhering to a draconian philosophy about sexuality to say nice things about sex because it makes us feel like we’re moving beyond the stodginess of the past. But even in my teenage years when I was reading and hearing these paeans to marital sex I could not shake the sense that something was off, like a 40-something with a soul patch trying to fit in at a college party. The point, I think, is not that marital sex is a bad idea—I’m a huge proponent—it is that it is somewhat contradictory to talk about how reckless and evil sex is in every possible instance except this single one. The overall view of sex that purity culture instills is one of danger, trepidation, and anxiety. The fact of the matter is that purity culture is incapable of realistically and genuinely attending to the extraordinary joys of human sexuality, much less the deeper emotional and spiritual significance of human sexuality.

When I read Shameless, regardless of where it is challenging or uncomfortable, of where I might agree or disagree, the one unarguable fact is that this book helps me to see how sex and sexuality are good—in a way that is believable, nuanced, and, most importantly, not creepy. (People really need to stop comparing the ecstasy of sexual pleasure with some Freudian notion of divine union.) And this is something that purity culture, however ‘orthodox’ it tries to seem, cannot do.

Really the only thing I took any real exception to in this book was her treatment of Augustine and Origen.

But I digress…

Nadia Bolz-Weber calls her book a reformation, I call it a renovation. Either way, it is high time that Christians learn that we have more choices than purity culture or ethical hedonism. This book does a great job at navigating the simultaneously sacred and mundane realities of Christian sexuality in general and in contemporary life in particular outside of those options. But when I recommend this book, I do not recommend it as a new code for sexual ethics—because in so many ways I think that is the very thing this book tries not to be. Instead I recommend it as a more spiritually, psychologically, and emotionally healthy way to think about sex, especially as it relates to the Christian faith.


[1] If you ask me, (which you probably didn’t), few better things have been written about Christian sexuality than the essay “The Body’s Grace” by Rowan Williams. It can be found online here: http://www.abc.net.au/religion/the-bodys-grace/10101214 OR in several edited volumes including Theology and Sexuality: Classic and Contemporary Readings (Wiley-Blackwell) and Our Selves, Our Souls & Bodies: Sexuality and the Household of God (Cowley Publications).

Losing My Religion (Mills)

Losing My Religion

William C. Mills, Losing My Religion: A Memoir of Faith and Finding.

Eugene, OR: Resource Publications, 2019.

……….

Ministers, pastors, priests, rabbis, imams, gurus, clergy, whatever you want to call them hold positions of authority in a community like any leader. Added to that basic authority is an implicit connection with the divine that often makes people put ministers on pedestals. They are considered ‘holy’, set apart from the ordinary layperson and not just given authority, but sometimes reverence. The special positions that clergy occupy can sometimes create the illusion in a religious community that they are above the fray of ordinary human imperfections, insecurities, cares, concerns, and anxieties. Nothing could be further from the truth.

William C. Mills’ new memoir is, to me, a heartfelt exploration through the all-too-human side of the life of clergy.

The Gist

Losing My Religion stands in the line of memoirs like Richard Lischer’s Open Secrets that unearths uncommon depth in the spiritual life by tracking through the ins and outs of religious life from the perspective of the leader of a religious community. The book begins in Mills’ early life, exploring the beginnings of a vocational call to parish ministry, and builds toward a major, catastrophic event in his ministry in which a third of his congregation ended up leaving the church. The latter portion of the book follows Mills’ path to recovery as an individual, and the recovery of his community.

Mills is a priest in the Orthodox church, a tradition that I have spent some significant time with and with whom I continually find spiritual nourishment. Yet it remains one of the lesser-known traditions in Christianity, especially among Protestants. It seemed to me that Mills tries to write not just for his own tradition, but for a broader audience, as he frequently explains in helpful detail some of the rituals and pastoral features of his church. As such it becomes an intriguing book not only as a glimpse into the inner thoughts and foibles of a clergy member, but also an interesting glimpse into a religious tradition that many may be only partially aware of, or familiar with.

What Stuck

I have already emphasized the main aspect of the book I found compelling—that it offers a first-person perspective into the life of a clergy member. What I think is great about this book is that it does so in a way that does not romanticize this life, nor does it try to make clergy-persons sound like they have it all figured out. Mills opens himself up in unusual vulnerability to show us a minister with struggles and questions both ordinary and extraordinary. Mills wrestles with his calling, he wrestles with his tradition, he wrestles with his youthful pride, he wrestles with trying to put together a financial life for his family, he even wrestles (figuratively, thank God) with his members. I think that is the best feature of this memoir, we really get to see a minister as a human being.

Representative Quote(s)

“I’m twenty-seven and I’m a ‘Father’. Yet I don’t feel like a Father, let alone an example to anyone. Bishop Peter called me worthy, yet I don’t feel worthy. I don’t feel worthy to preach sermons or hear confessions. I don’t feel worthy to lead services. I never changed a diaper, paid a mortgage, or had a real job. How can I offer pastoral advice? I went straight from high school to college to seminary to ordination. I know that I have the approval of the Holy Synod of Bishops, the seminary faculty, my friends, and my family. Yet deep down I am terrified. Little do I know what awaits me in the parish.”

Concluding Thoughts

I want to conclude with two contradictory thoughts: clergy should not be trusted, and clergy should be trusted. Coming from a low-church tradition in which ministers are at best the leaders of the “priesthood of all believers,” it is in my religious DNA to balk at the veneration that clergy are sometimes given. We are human. We have petty thoughts and feelings and ambitions and plans. Sometimes we are outright sinful, because, may I remind the reader, we are human. In fact clergy tend to suffer from larger than average rates of depression and self-medication or addiction. From the increasing horrors of sexual abuse perpetrated by clergy across denominational lines to the power-mongering and posturing of ministers who build big churches or hoard influence in small parishes, this is a harrowing vocation filled with any temptation one could imagine. No human being, whatever their calling, regardless of their piety, should be trusted implicitly or adored the way that clergy are in churches or other religious institutions.

So take away the veneration and the naivete, but also learn to trust clergy in the right ways with the right things. Trust their education. Be skeptical of ministers without one. Trust that they are spending a lot of time thinking and reading and praying and serving not so that you don’t have to, but in order to make it possible for everyone else who lives busy lives to grapple more effectively with their own spiritual lives. Trust that the vast majority of clergy are deeply embarrassed and frustrated at the bad reputation they are given by a small set of highly visible and corruptible peers. Trust most importantly that it is possible for people to be good and faithful in the ways that God has called them to be good and faithful. Priests may not be avatars of the divine, and should not be treated as such, but they have a special calling, and most of them are trying to live faithfully into that calling with the challenges and raised expectations that come with it. William Mills provides an authentic glimpse into such a faithfully imperfect life of ministry.


Disclosure: I received this book free from the author without stipulation of a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Reviving Old Scratch (Beck)

Reviving Old Scratch

Richard Beck, Reviving Old Scratch: Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted.

Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016.

Some time ago I confessed to a group of fellow-ministers that I did not believe in the actual existence of the devil. Some of my doubts had to do with life experience—I had never encountered anything “demonic” that didn’t have at least five more compelling explanations. But mostly my doubt was instigated by the empty, superstitious, and often destructive theology in which angels and demons and “The Devil” take center stage. In the essay, “The Moral Theology of the Devil,” Thomas Merton expands on the dangers of such thinking, and Elaine Pagels, in her book The Origins of Satan, demonstrates the social dangers in which ‘the devil’ becomes a cypher for whatever scapegoat a community wishes to scorn. In Beck’s own words, “We always smell sulfur around those we wish to kill” (xvi).

I explained to my peers that I have been increasingly convinced that the demonic in the Bible is symbolic. It is a language for talking about evils of all kinds. It is a useful language and compelling in some ways, but it has too much baggage and can be too easily manipulated to be helpful anymore. Having laid bare my heterodoxy, my peers gently nudged me toward Richard Beck’s book, Reviving Old Scratch, as an answer to my doubts. Beck is something of a theological celebrity in my tribe and I had not only heard of this book, I had it on my bookshelf. I figured Beck would have something worth listening to on the subject. So, naturally about a year or so after this conversation I finally managed to read this book.

The Gist

The first thing to note is that this book is readable. It is not a scholarly book, although Beck’s ideas have substance, are well argued, and are informed by scholarship. It is littered with stories, wit, and sometimes just juicy rhetoric. That being said, lets jump into the meat of the book.

The book is divided into three sections. The first section fleshes out Beck’s own criticisms of the language of spiritual warfare and introduces the way that spiritual warfare can be understood as a language of social justice—where “powers and principalities” are political or socio-economic terms. Beck sees justice as an important element in spiritual warfare, but flawed if it’s the only way we talk about the devil. So the second section works through how this language is deficient if it does not name something real underlying the corruption within personal and systemic evils. The third part seeks to “reintroduce Old Scratch” (‘Old Scratch’ being a folksy name for the devil) as a real, corrupting force that works at internal and external, private and public, isolated and systemic levels.

I think this book has two audiences. The first audience are people like me, the doubters and disenchanted. Beck wants to “revive” the idea of the devil because he sees a lot of problems with a theology that can’t speak meaningfully and tangibly about evil, or that can only do so in limited ways. For Beck, the idea of the devil, or devils, or spiritual warfare is central to faith, because if we don’t have a way of talking about evil then we also don’t have a way of responding to it or working against it. This is the audience Beck explicitly addresses himself to throughout the book, partially because he writes as one of these doubters and disenchanted.

The second audience is subtle and implicit, but they’re there to be sure. This audience are the ones who too uncritically and ubiquitously employ the language of spiritual warfare. We might describe these folks as people who do not doubt enough and are too “enchanted” by the world of demons that they develop their own distortion of faith. Throughout the book are really important critiques of bad theologies of the devil.

What Stuck

The major thrust of the book is to develop a meaningful way of talking about and responding to evil. (I guess it’s a good thing for the major argument of the book to be the thing that sticks.) For Beck, this meaningful language involves the devil—something that names the forces in the world that work against what is good.

Interestingly, however, Beck is ambiguous on the question of whether we are talking about the devil as a literal, spiritual being or just a symbol for evil as a personified, corrupting force. In fact, it is this malignant “force” that is the unquestionably real thing. Beck is happy to leave it to the reader to decide whether there is some actual entity behind it, or if that is just the symbolic language that the biblical writers used.

Representative Quote(s)

As I hope to show you, that narrow focus on possession and exorcism misses the heart of our battle with the Devil as it is described in the Bible. (xviii)

Across the pages of the Bible, evil and suffering are simply assumed to exist. Suffering exists and we must act—that’s the starting point. Evil and suffering exist, do something! That’s the warfare worldview, and that is the only thing the Bible seems interested in communicating to us [about it]. (81)

The satanic is everything which tempts us away from taking up our cross in following Jesus. This is critical for a theology of spiritual warfare, as the cross of Jesus is the quintessential expression of self-giving, self-donating, and sacrificial love. The satanic and the demonic are all those forces tempting us away from this love. (92)

I don’t know if this force is consciously malevolent, but it is most definitely malignant. And, really, it doesn’t much matter which it is. Because more than anything, the force is real. (187)

Conclusion

The early Christian ascetic tradition liked to talk about demons as these incorporeal entities that were the source of vicious thoughts. Resistance to these demons, however, was the means by which people grew deeper into the image and likeness of God. I think Beck is right that the Christian faith requires a kind of theology of resistance. We are not who God made us to be, and the world is not as God intends. That implies a notion of struggle or revolt. But the ambiguity that Beck holds about the actual existence of literal demons also characterized the ancient ascetic writings. One is not able to tell whether these “demons” actually exist for them, or if demons are just useful symbols to describe evil in intentional and purposeful terms.

As I finished the book I was not yet ready to recant my heresy to my fellow-ministers, and I wasn’t sure Beck himself had become as re-enchanted with the world of angels and demons as he puts on. But I am reminded by this book that faith does not circumnavigate evil—by whatever name we call it. Faith faces evil directly, demands resistance to it, and promises redemption from it.

Hoping Against Hope (Caputo)

Hoping Against Hope

John D. Caputo, Hoping Against Hope (Confessions of a Postmodern Pilgrim).

Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015.

We hunger,
Though all that we eat brings us little relief
We don’t know quite what else to do
We have all our beliefs
But we don’t want our beliefs
God of peace,
We want you.

– mewithoutYou, “Four Word Letter, pt. 2”

What did you think God looked like when you were young? It’s a necessary theological category mistake we all have to go through. Children just don’t think in abstract concepts to understand that God is not a being like you or I with a fixed form for identification. Most of us probably had some image of an old man with long grey hair and the beard to match; like a wizard. Our notion of God was probably not far off from that image either. God is a being of magical power who benignly supervises his creation and who can be persuaded from time to time to do some of his magic for us if we are good—or who may punish us with those same divine powers if we are bad.

And when you put it that way we can all knowingly smile at our younger selves because we have outgrown such a silly image and idea of God. Except that it is often the case that we struggle to think of God otherwise. We have dropped the image, but not the idea. God remains for many a transcendent wizard, a superhero, a genie, some spirit who is more powerful than all other spirits and, as luck would have it, happens to be benevolent rather than malevolent. The essence of spiritual and intellectual maturation is to learn to let go of inadequate or even false ideas when we begin to see them as such, and this applies to our notion of God above all. This is the important backdrop to reading and appreciating what John Caputo is after in Hoping Against Hope.

The Gist

This is a book about theology proper, that is, the study of God, who God is, what God is, if God is anything or of any other kind of essence. And then it is a book about what follows from Caputo’s argument about God. Essentially, for Caputo God does not exist, he [God] insists. Caputo outright denies the idea of a superhero/wizard God, or of a God who possesses the attribute of existence (the way you or I exist) and even hedges around the popular idea that God is the “ground of existence.” Caputo’s idea of God is simply whatever goes on under the name of God. Not what we claim what goes on under the name of God, but a force that calls us, without force or coercion or threat or any other power to back up its request, toward the direction of beauty and goodness and truth.

What I think is at work here is that Caputo is not particularly interested in the God of classic abstract thought and especially uninterested in the wish-fulfillment deity commonly operative in religious circles. Caputo is interested in the God of lived experience and that God, Caputo suggests, is not one that will make everything all right on our own terms. So Caputo calls into questions and redefines concepts like eternity, salvation, and devotion or piety in ways that are not so much defined and bound by the kinds of things catered towards our own finite sense of self-preservation and fulfillment, but rather towards something consistent with a God still defined by those core Christian virtues of self-emptying, non-coercive, and sacrificial love. The rest of the book is really about what life is about in relation to this kind of God. What is prayer, what is human existence, what is purpose or meaning, what is beauty and goodness without a big wizard God to establish them for us?

What makes this book great in my eyes, is that Caputo faces head on the scariest elements of life—the ones that we lean on religion to deliver us from, and draws upon the Christian tradition of his upbringing in a way that provides different answers to these questions: answers that are not triumphalistic or “safe” by any measure, but answers that, for that reason, seem all the more real and palatable. Caputo is espousing something in the vein of Bonhoeffer’s “religionless religion,” a trust in the value of love and truth and kindness, and life itself even if it is not eternal.

What Stuck

This book is heterodox to its core. Many readers, like myself, will find almost everything Caputo says challenging, and one will wonder how any of this can be reconciled with the basic claims of Christian faith. Part of that is the point. Caputo wants to help his readers see the inconsistencies in conventional notions of faith without dropping faith altogether. Faith, in fact, becomes redefined. Caputo has no love for militant atheists who see themselves as the antidote to the superstition of religion, seeing atheism as another kind of belief (with a little help from the French philosopher Lyotard) or its own kind of religious system fundamentally at work in the same project of the religions they critique.

Another thing that stuck was in one of the later chapters, Caputo discusses the essential similarities between angels and technology, insofar as they play functionally the same salvific role in the ages in which they respectively flourished. He argues that even people of faith subtly and implicitly believe along with the rest of humanity in the salvation offered by technology. In the face of the threat of the exhaustion of our world’s resources, or of the inevitable dying out of our sun, we look to the stars for other worlds to inhabit and continue the existence of our species. Short of the hope—or fantasy—of a heavenly that is not under threat of physics, technology becomes the “this world” angel that will facilitate the divine work of salvation. I think Caputo has his finger on one of the major arteries of modern life here.

Representative Quote(s)

“At most, such people accept the old dogmas and the old supernaturalism with a grain of salt and quietly conclude—or sometimes not so quietly—that at best the old orthodoxy has a purely metaphorical significance. By such people I do not restrict myself to the people in the pews; I also mean the people up front, in the pulpit doing the preaching.” (14)

“I am seeking to know what religion would look like, what form it could take, if it were wrested free from people who consider themselves authorities in matters in which we are all unlearned novices and perpetual beginners.” (17)

“Too often pastors and theologians behave like the stockbrokers of eternity, advising their clients on the best investments, competing with other religions over who offers the best deal. The mysticism of the rose proceeds under exactly the opposite presuppositions: that life, this mortal life, is a gift to be savored for itself, that blossoms because it blossoms. This bloom is not waylaid by death, not undermined by mortality, but constituted by it. Life is made all the more precious by its transient beauty, by its fleeting moment in the sun. Life is life/death, living on, outliving death for a time, and the “economy of salvation” is life’s worst enemy.” (39)

“That means, not that God exists, but that what calls to us unconditionally—insistently, incessantly calling for peace and justice, for the gift and forgiveness, for mercy and hospitality—is called in and under the name of God. In short, God does not exist; God insists.” (111)

Conclusion

John Caputo has been with me since my earliest days studying religion in college. And he’s always been an author that’s a few steps ahead of me—not in the sense that he knows more than I do (most authors can claim that title), but in the sense of articulating and advocating a theological vision that is a little beyond what I can accept, but not so far-fetched that it is not necessarily off my trajectory. He is compelling even when he says things or argues things that are almost contrary to the core of what I believe, and he does so with wit and rhetorical skill that makes reading him worth it if only because it was an enjoyable ride that I will remember even if I’m a bit scared to go back on it.

The Essential Rumi (Rumi/Barks)

The Essential Rumi

Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī, The Essential Rumi;
translated by Coleman Barks

San Francisco: Harper Publishing, 1995.

By: Dale Pauls

What, one might wonder, is a poetic anthology of a 13th century Persian mystic, that is, a 13th century Persian mystic who is Muslim, doing on a preacher’s bookshelf? Especially one whose language is sometimes crude and sexually explicit; who mentions body parts most holy men don’t? Beyoncé and JAY-Z might name a child after him. Coldplay’s Chris Martin may find his way through divorce by reading his poems. But what is The Essential Rumi doing on a preacher’s bookshelf?

The Gist 

Rumi (pronounced “Roomie”) was born in 1207 in Afghanistan, then part of the Persian Empire. He was himself the son of an Islamic jurist, theologian and mystic. Fleeing the invading armies of Genghis Khan, his family migrated westward. Rumi was theologically trained in Syria and eventually settled in Konya, Turkey (the name “Rumi” means “from Roman Anatolia”) where he came to distinguish himself as a poet and the spiritual leader of a group of Sufi Muslim ascetics. The turning point in his life came in the late fall of 1244 when he met a wandering dervish, Shams of Tabriz, with whom Rumi struck up an intense months-long friendship. Shams, however, disappeared as suddenly as he’d appeared. And Rumi’s poetry rises out of his Friend’s absence, out of the deep pain of his separation from Shams. His loss was mitigated to some extent by later friendships, and over time Rumi came to see these passionate relationships as part of his journey back home to God. So in his poetry, “the Friend” of which he speaks is variably Shams (or another soul mate) or God. Or both.

Writing then in the style of Persian romantic poetry, Rumi becomes a voice for love: human and divine. He describes his own yet-future but partly-present union with God in surprisingly sensual ways (which will seem familiar to those well-read in 13th-century European Christian mystics who spoke of union with God as spiritual marriage). For Rumi, our own quests for love and ecstasy, however fumbling they may be, even however immature, are part of our hunger, our soul’s quest, for God. For as Rumi often writes, “There’s no reality but God; there is only God.”

There are some questions the knowing reader will likely ask. We are reading Rumi through the exquisite sensibilities of Coleman Barks who is himself a great poet, but not a translator. He does not read or write Persian. What he does do is render previously academic translations of Rumi into flowing American-style free verse. So we could wonder to what extent Barks Westernizes and perhaps de-Islamicizes Rumi. It is surprising, for instance, to find in Rumi more references to Jesus than Muhammad.

Then there’s of course the matter of whether the twice-married Rumi’s poetry is gay or perhaps homoerotic, consummated or not. But as Barks observes, correctly I think, “Rumi is way happier than sex and orgasm, his wandering more conscious and free” (from Rumi the Book of Love).

What Stuck

What sticks is Rumi’s honest, straightforward rendering of love in all its human frailty and vulnerability and his realization of its connectedness to the God who is love. Contemporary writers, schooled in psychology and spirituality, only mimic his insights from 750 years ago.

What else sets Rumi apart, however, is his generous appreciation of faiths other than his own Islamic faith. In a remarkable section (excerpted here), he speaks this way for God:

Did you come as a Prophet to unite,

or to sever?

I have given each being a separate and unique way

of seeing and knowing and saying that knowledge.

What seems wrong to you is right for him.

What is poison for one is honey to someone else.

Ways of worshiping are not to be ranked

as better or worse than one another.

Hindus do Hindu things.

The Dravidian Muslims in India do what they do.

It’s all praise, and it’s all right.

The love-religion has no code or doctrine.

Only God. (166-167)

Agree or disagree this is a remarkable position for anyone in the 13th century Middle East. In fact, it’s monotheism drawn to its most radically rational end. And yet Rumi writes from within his Islamic heritage. Our own prophets of hate try to keep folks from seeing this, as if Islam were intrinsically narrow and violent in spirit, but it was Rumi’s own Islamic faith and culture that tolerated his astonishing openness and toleration. His turn to universalism rises, yes, out of his love-intoxicated heart, but in a decidedly Muslim context.

Representative Quote(s)

My soul is from elsewhere. I’m sure of that,

and I intend to end up there. (2)

Why do you stay in prison

when the door is so wide open? (3)

Inside this new love, die.

Your way begins on the other side. (22)

In your presence [God] I don’t want

what I thought I wanted. (35)

What can I say to someone so curled up with wanting,

so constricted in his love? (63)

Sometimes when two beings come together,

Christ becomes visible. (79)

God as “the lover inside all your other lovers.” (139)

Your defects are the ways that glory gets manifested. …

Keep looking at the bandaged place.

That’s where the light enters you. (141, 142)

What nine months of attention does for an embryo

forty early mornings will do

for your gradually growing wholeness. (151)

Someone once asked a great sheikh what sufism was.

“The feeling of joy when sudden disappointment comes.”

Don’t grieve for what doesn’t come.

Some things that don’t happen

keep disasters from happening. (171)

Remember: the way you make love is the way

God will be with you. (185)

When you feel gloomed over,

it’s your failure to praise. (228)

Birds make great sky-circles

of their freedom.

How do they learn it?

They fall, and falling,

they’re given wings. (243)

Don’t grieve. Anything you lose comes round

in another form. (272)

Conclusion

Now as a great global spiritual movement seeks to end religious hatred, it’s no wonder that many are drawn to Rumi, this Islamic poet of the heart. There is, however, a caveat. Reading Rumi can be painful to those who feel separate from God.

But here’s what Rumi does best. He reassures us that if we keep trying, if we keep thinking, and above all, if we keep loving, we can attain union with God. Countless other religious leaders stress the unattainability of such union. Rumi celebrates it.

So it should not have surprised me – though it did – when the girl at the wine shop gushes on seeing my well-worn copy of Rumi. And it’s not surprising that in December of 1273 when Rumi died, religious leaders of every major faith attended his funeral. All this in the time of crusades and sectarian violence not so very far from him. As Barks observes (246), Rumi made it clear that “someone who considers religion or nation an important human category is in danger of severing the heart from its ability to act compassionately. This is a radical idea now, but Rumi held the conviction in the thirteenth century with such deep gentleness that its truth was recognized.”

Perhaps my favorite Rumi quote of all is when in addressing God he says,

“The minute I heard my first love story I started looking for you” (106).

Any writer who can so well map out the many roads that lead from human love to God decidedly reserves a place on a preacher’s bookshelf.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Enfleshing Freedom (Copeland)

Enfleshing Freedom

M. Shawn Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being

Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010.

When we first touch something hot our minds concretize the connection between the hot thing and the pain we experienced. We then develop a kind of pattern in our minds: don’t touch the hot thing; it will hurt you. This same process applies to thousands of other experiences in our lives: our bodies are the vehicle through which experiences shape us and change us. This also applies in a spiritual or existential sense. The way we represent ourselves and the ways we are perceived and treated, the physical and emotional contact we make—whether positive or negative—with others, our habits of eating and drinking, the situations in which we are placed or place ourselves, and the communities that we become a part of, in which our physical presence is paramount—all of these bodily things (and more) shape us into who we are, or how we understand ourselves.

Theologically, however, the body is underappreciated. Because we he have the means of transcending, at least by some degree, the (bodily) things that shape us through critical reason, reflection, and choice, we have overlooked the decisive role that bodies and the way we treat them play in our lives, and also help us understand and process the world in which God became flesh. That is the starting point for M. Shawn Copeland’s book Enfleshing Freedom.

The Gist

In particular, Copeland wants to investigate the theological implications or meanings of bodies like hers: black female bodies. Early on Copeland states that her book is based on five convictions: 1) the body is the site of divine revelation; 2) the body shapes human existence as relational and social; 3) the creativity of the Triune God is manifest in differences of gender, race, and sexuality; 4) solidarity is a set of body practices; 5) the Eucharist orders and transforms our bodies as the body of Christ (p. 2).

In terms of broad strokes her book moves from the negative implications of bodies to the positive implications of bodies. For all of the value of the body, it is also vulnerable. So it should not be surprising that Copeland spends a good deal of time interrogating the effects of racism and the effects of its physical and psychological abuse on the being of black women. Then she moves to the positive theological implications of bodies, especially in light of the body of God in the person of Jesus Christ, and the Eucharistic practice in which we are united in solidarity with this body.

What Stuck

The first thing that stuck was her notion of racism as a kind of blindness or “scotosis.” This is not her invention, but she elaborates on how racism is not just an active hatred for or subordination of others, but rather very often it is a blindness to the inherent beauty and value as figured in the bodies of others. Yet this kind of racism, or bias, is conscious and deliberate in its refusal to see what is right in front of it. The typology Copeland develops of racism or bias as a) dramatic b) individual c) group d) common sense, will be very helpful to (white) folks such as myself who continually need to think through the ways in which the poison of bias remains in our blood.

The second thing that stuck was Copeland’s emphasis on “practices of solidarity” and ultimately upon the solidarity found in the practice of the Eucharist, which she calls “Eucharistic solidarity.” The focus of practices of solidarity is on remembering. We remember the good and the bad—but remembering the bad is especially important because it acknowledges that it happened, we become witnesses to the pain of others, we become able to say to another person who is suffering that at the very least we acknowledge their pain as real. Most importantly, in the Eucharist we remember not just the salvific force, but the bodily trauma, with its roots in social injustice, that precipitated and constituted the salvific nature of the cross. To be in solidarity with Christ in that remembrance is to bring all of the physical and emotional suffering of humanity into solidarity with God. The Eucharist thus unites us with God in solidarity with the suffering bodies of others.

Representative Quote(s)

 

By attending to black women’s understanding and interpretation, judgment and evaluation of their condition, we may understand more adequately their determination to reclaim their bodies and those of their loved ones, and appreciate their love and struggle for freedom. Moreover, we may e better prepared to challenge contemporary stereotypes about black women—especially those intellectual, moral, and aesthetic labels that objectify, exploit, and deface God’s image in black womanhood. (25)

Davis recognizes that cognitive and affective dimensions alone remain inadequate; awareness and pity merely nod toward solidarity. Awareness and pity must be strengthened, extended, and enriched through personal encounter, responsible intellectual preparation, and healing and creative action for change in society. We shoulder suffering and oppression; we take up a position beside the exploited and despised black bodies. Further, solidarity involves critique of self, of society, of church. This critique takes on and includes existential reflection, historical scrutiny, presence to memory, social analysis, acknowledgement and confession of sin, authentic repentance—change of heart, change of life, change of living. (126)

Conclusion

As a white, male reader of a black woman’s theology it can be intimidating. My approach is to listen, to learn something, and to not assume too quickly what would turn out to be a false commonality or equivalence. I think that is important, but it is also important to engage at some level; to look for ways in which connections might be found; to respect the author enough to even disagree or at the very least be less than convinced.

The thing I want to focus on as a kind of conclusion is the fear and anxiety at work in this kind of engagement. There is a fear here that I will say something wrong and offensive, that my biases will be exposed, that I might be guilty of the blindness I am prone to see in others. The reality is that this may very well be true. I do not inhabit a morally or socially pure space from which I would be able to read what Copeland writes or respond in a way that will not be guilty of blindness or misunderstanding. The key is to admit that, to be honest, because the only way to overcome this is to go through it.

This book is an important book for people to read especially if they do not look in the mirror and see the figure of a black, female body. It is worth it to listen to Copeland’s words and grow by encountering a voice and perspective that may be very different than one’s own or what one is used to—but also to hear those faint familiar tones through which we connect in authentic commonality.

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