book review

Faith's Power and Variety

JEFF SHARLET, author of nonfiction books about faith including New York Times best-seller The Family and Sweet Heaven When I Die, isn’t so much interested in religion as he is in belief. “That interest sometimes leads me to people who might reject the term religion altogether,” he writes of drinking whiskey with Mormons and marching in Spain with Jewish-American veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, a volunteer group of up to 40,000 men and women from 52 countries who traveled to fight fascism in the Spanish Civil War.

In his newest book, Radiant Truths, Sharlet collects stories like these, stories about what happens when religious ideas meet social practice. He attributes this concept to anthropologist Angela Zito. In her essay “Religion is Media,” Zito ponders, “What does the term ‘religion,’ when actually used by people, out loud, authorizein the production of social life?” Using Zito’s question as a jumping off point, Sharlet dives into 150 years’ worth of literary journalism at the intersection of religion, culture, and politics.

He admits his own bias; as with most anthologies, his selections are personal favorites, and not wholly representative of the nation’s religious pluralism. Sharlet also explains each selection in a short interlude between pieces, a helpful cohesion if, like me, you read the book from front to back. Journeying from a 19th century Purim to a 20th century healing ceremony conducted by a traditional Laotian Hmong shaman is an exhilarating adventure, but one that requires a chaperone.

The anthology begins in 1863 with Walt Whitman, moving through the end of the 1800s with writing by Thoreau and Twain. The 20th century opens with a fierce female duo, Sara Jeannette Duncan and Jane Addams, writing about historic Hull House. By the middle of the last century, we’ve met boy preacher James Baldwin and been introduced to Louisiana voodoo by Zora Neale Hurston.

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Tell Me Why

I’M IN THAT cohort of earnest, educated, now-middle-aged North Americans who fell in love with Dave Eggers’ sprawling, sometimes unapologetically self-indulgent memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. All my life I had lived with an ongoing inner monologue of exaggerated self-consciousness, but I’d never read anyone who could articulate the experience as precisely, never mind playfully, as Eggers.

Eggers could have made a fortune repeating the same entertaining self-indulgence, but he’s shaped his career into anything but navel-gazing. He’s formed writing workshops for kids; started two long-running magazines; cofounded an oral history book series on human rights crises; and written a string of beautiful, compassionate books of fiction and nonfiction with an unmistakably critical eye.

In his latest novel—Your Fathers, Where Are They? And The Prophets, Do They Live Forever?—Eggers uses a dialogue-only form to tell a compact story that thunders with probity and timeless, existential urgency. The main character, Thomas, a middle-aged man with psychological issues, has conversations with six different kidnap victims—an astronaut, a former member of Congress and Vietnam vet, his high-school teacher, his mother, a policeman, and a woman he meets during walks on the beach—holding them on an abandoned military base on the California coast. He doesn’t physically harm any of them; he just wants to know where everything went wrong. Why do our friends die? Why do our career dreams come to naught? Why do the mythical promises of science, democracy, education, nationalism, law, progress, and even love fail to deliver?

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God of the Fugitives

CHRIS HOKE’S Wanted isn’t a spiritual memoir in the sense of chronicling revelation over time, and while Hoke, as his own character, grows through the book, he isn’t tracking the movements of his own soul. Wanted recounts the moments in Hoke’s life as a pastor and friend to prisoners, migrant workers, and gang members when something else broke in. Whether or not it intends to, Wanted is a way of answering the question that plagues a lot of contemporary spiritual writing: What does spiritual mean, anyway? Outside the religious patterns we already know, how would we recognize it?

Hoke goes looking, and finds himself drawn to a jail in Washington’s Skagit Valley as an unofficial chaplain, leading Bible studies and hanging out with the men who soon request his visits. Many of them listen to the stories where Jesus dines with the people society rejected and ask if that could mean them too.

By hanging out in the margins of U.S. society, Wanted can’t avoid the question of how these men got there in the first place. It’s outside the purview of the book to fully take on the issue of mass incarceration in the United States, but in the stories there is ample evidence of ways in which our system is heartbreaking and often inhumane. To learn even the elementary details of these men’s lives is to see that nearly everyone has failed them. The alternative, a God who wants them, is Hoke’s theme, and part of his title’s double meaning. Such a God accompanies people to the ends of their shadows—to the fields where they hide from the police, into the houses they break into, to the horror of solitary confinement.

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Improving Our Safety Net

WITH A LONG history of involvement in the evolution of the Social Security program, Nancy Altman and Eric Kingson are the right analysts to explain the program and demonstrate conclusively that, with careful tending by Congress, Social Security will be there for future generations: a critical part of retirement finances for the vast majority of the American people and, for many, the only retirement support. They argue that Congress should be strengthening and expanding Social Security—and they show how this can be done and the bill paid.

The book makes clear that Social Security is not an entitlement program but a social insurance program with premiums paid through payroll taxes. Its $2.8 trillion trust fund represents the full-faith support of the American people to provide essential insurance coverage for all our people against the universal hazards of death, disability, and old age. It compares how our system stacks up against those of other advanced industrial societies. (We are distinctly less generous to our senior citizens than other developed nations.)

Primarily through the death and disability provisions, Social Security also provides the largest amount of support to children of any federal program, keeping millions of children above the poverty line. Indirect support—helping people not have to bear the full financial burden of caring for elderly parents whose financial independence is assisted through both Social Security and Medicare—increases the number of beneficiaries further.

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Escaping The Bonds Of Privilege

David P. Gushee teaches Christian ethics at Mercer University in Georgia.

REBECCA TODD PETERS offers here a concise treatment of the major moral concern of a large part of Christian social ethics: the structures of globalized economic life and their manifest injustices and unsustainability. She also offers a moral framework to guide the thinking of unjustly, and often blindly, privileged First World Christians about the moral situation in which we find ourselves.

She proposes concrete action guides for how such First World Christians can gradually and intentionally empty ourselves of these privileges in order to stand in solidarity with those whose lives are harmed in the delivery of our advantages. In the end what emerges is a kind of liberation ethics for those who didn’t know they needed to be liberated—in this case, from their own advantages.

More and more primers are being written to help privileged North Americans gain some idea of what exactly it takes for us to enjoy those “everyday low prices” over at the big box store. It should not be so difficult; after all, we can just look at the labels and read on the internet about the people over in Bangladesh and Thailand who work in inhumane conditions to get us our superfluous T-shirts for $4.99.

Peters briskly takes us into the two-thirds world and lets us catch a glimpse of who really pays the price for the consumer goods we enjoy. But especially valuable is her survey of the “neoliberal” and indeed “neocolonial” economic and political structures (trade deals, IMF, etc.) that fix the current regime in place so that the cheap exploited labor of, let’s face it, brown bodies continues to serve the comfort of white bodies in the Northern Hemisphere, all in the name of free-market capitalism and free trade.

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