book review

10-30-2017

SOUTH ASIAN-AMERICANS, such as Siddhartha Mukherjee and Atul Gawande, have recently made a dent in the white male hegemony that has reigned in medical writing for general audiences. Haider Warraich is following in their path with this new book on death and dying.

With liberal use of anecdotes from a medical residency in Boston, Warraich snaps the reader out of sanitized TV portrayals or even hospital experiences of death to induce a more authentic confrontation, one most would seemingly rather avoid at all costs. (Witness church members who no longer have funerals but “celebrations of life” and “homegoings,” often after enduring dehumanizing and futile end-of-life interventions.)

But is lack of knowledge about the mechanics of “modern death” in a technological society at the core of the problem, as Warraich seems to think? Is his thesis correct that our fear of death is greater than ever? Can social media posts by the dying overcome these problems?

Greg Williams 9-18-2017

APOCALYPSE IS in the air. Perhaps it was the eclipse in August, or the always accelerating churn of foreign and domestic scandal in the news, or the looming threat of climate change. Or perhaps people have always lived this way. But the world feels weighty and close to falling apart, and we start wondering how we would handle the aftermath.

When the English Fall, by David Williams (no relation), examines that possibility: a post-apocalyptic novel about a catastrophe that makes the low-tech, community-minded lifestyle of the Amish the only viable one. We witness the immediate aftermath of the modern life of the English (the Amish name for all non-Amish people) failing due to a solar storm; society is placed under immense stress without the ability to feed itself. In a fantastic choice, this is examined through the life of an Amish farmer named Jacob—how he adapts and the difficult decisions that he must make for his way of life to survive.

Karen Gonzalez 9-18-2017

WITHIN THE FIRST pages of The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life , it becomes clear that Lauren Markham understands the complexities of immigration to the United States and has personally worked with immigrants stuck in its tangled web. In a journalistic style, she reports the story of teenage twin brothers Raúl and Ernesto, fleeing gang violence in El Salvador, hoping to find safety and new opportunities in El Norte.

Markham has worked in refugee resettlement and immigrant education for the past decade. In this book she covers all aspects of immigration in well-researched detail. But she also seems to understand that while any reader could argue immigration policy, no one can argue with the Flores brothers’ story, from the crippling poverty in rural El Salvador, where life is cheap and disposable, to the stark loneliness of their lives in the U.S., far from the comforts of family and home.

Abby Olcese 7-31-2017

AS A TEENAGER growing up in a church setting that discouraged engaging with movies, books, or music deemed a “bad influence,” I remember frequently being confused about pop culture, particularly when it came to what films I was “allowed” to watch. Was I wrong for wanting to see Taxi Driver ? For identifying with Saved? Was it a sin to watch The Last Temptation of Christ?

The answer to all these questions, of course, is “no,” but the sentiment behind them is understandable. The easiest metric for Christians to judge a film’s quality is the measure of its “objectionable” content, regardless of what that content says about the filmmaker’s intent, or the political or cultural attitudes under which it was conceived. The truth, however, is that all art—whether spiritual or secular in origin—has something to express about the world: joy in its beauty, anger at its injustice, a whole spectrum of emotions and ideas that reflect the human experience.

Rosalie G. Riegle 7-25-2017

EILEEN MARKEY'S story of the life of Sister Maura Clarke reads like a Greek tragedy, progressing inexorably toward darkness. Many of us know the ending: In 1980, four churchwomen were murdered in El Salvador by national guardsmen, led by a sergeant who had been trained at the U.S.-based School of the Americas. The men raped and executed two Maryknoll sisters—Maura Clarke and Ita Ford—Ursuline sister Dorothy Kazel, and lay woman Jean Donovan, ambushing them on their way back to the people they served in Chalatenango.

Clarke is the last of the four women to be memorialized with her own book, but Markey has created the most complete work. Her beautifully sourced research ranges from family to Maryknoll archives to conversations with many people who worked with the sisters in Nicaragua and El Salvador.

Sammi Sluder 7-17-2017

Image via Eva Blue/ Flickr

Gay is a true prophetic voice. She laments her life, her trauma, and her weight. She doesn’t promise victory but speaks to the pain that so many people feel: victims and survivors of sexual violence, bisexual people, fat people, and lonely people.

Greg Williams 7-10-2017

I LEARNED HOW to bike relatively late in life. I was 23, and it cut my commute in half. Since I’d been walking an hour each way for a night shift that started at 11 p.m., that meant a lot. My guru was an elder from my local church who lived across the alley. He taught me how to change a tire, gears, and my life. He showed me hospitality by teaching me about my bike, but it extended much further than that.

UCC minister Laura Everett does much the same thing in Holy Spokes . She uses the metaphor of a bike as a lens to discuss the broader issues of how to relate to people, the Earth, and God: Mostly how, to use Brother Lawrence’s term, to practice the presence of God.

Julienne Gage 7-10-2017

FIFTEEN YEARS AGO, Richard Florida argued in The Rise of the Creative Class that cities fostering brainy interaction, creativity, and innovation would thrive, since modern capitalism was increasingly knowledge-based. His projections were acclaimed by artsy, back-to-the-city types (including many church planters) and scorned by activists and the low-income residents that gentrification displaced.

The critics were on to something, because since then many big cities have indeed gotten sexier, but not necessarily more reliable, especially for the masses. From 2006 to 2014, average incomes declined by 6 percent, while average rent prices soared by 22 percent. Today, about 21 million American renters are putting 30 to 50 percent of their income toward rent, with 30 percent representing the “cost-burdened” threshold.

Julie Polter 7-10-2017

THE ART OF ... book series from Graywolf Press focuses on writing craft and criticism. In each compact volume an accomplished writer takes on a single element or theme. The most recent entry in the series is The Art of Death, by Edwidge Danticat.

Danticat’s reflections on a wide variety of literature that wrestles with death—from Taiye Selasi’s debut novel, Ghana Must Go, to C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed—offer insights for readers as much as for writers. She explores the complicated emotional landscape of death and mourning, but also the myriad ways, tangled in questions of both justice and mercy, that death comes: accident, illness, deadly disasters, suicides, executions.

Andrew Wilkes 7-07-2017

MOST RADICAL JESUS  theologies begin with the gospel of Luke. In a tour-de-force work, Liz Theoharis’ Always with Us? What Jesus Really Said about the Poor illustrates that the gospel of Matthew also offers a relevant statement of “God’s coming reign of abundance, dignity, and prosperity for all.” Centering this effort is Theoharis’ striving to “rethink the role of the church in the world and to challenge some of the most widely held misinterpretations of the Bible and poor people.”

Appropriate, accurate interpretation of Matthew 26:11, where Jesus says to the disciples that they have the poor always with them, is the burden of the book. In performing this task, Rev. Dr. Theoharis, founder and co-director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice and coordinator of the Poverty Initiative at Union Theological Seminary, demonstrates the rarefied exegete’s blend: granular analysis and big picture vision. She effectively critiques the various theological justifications for structural poverty that stem, in part or whole, from a mishandling of this passage.

Anne Colamosca 6-05-2017

THERE'S NO DOUBT that both Winston Churchill and George Orwell (two of the 20th century’s harshest critics of the Soviet Union) would be fascinated by the gaggle of money launderers, KGB men, and other Vladimir Putin supplicants dominating today’s international and domestic news.

Thomas E. Ricks, a national security adviser at the New America Foundation, has written a relatively compact dual biography of the two men, Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom. It is extremely readable, but it leaves out a lot. Ricks comments: “On the surface, the two men were quite different. ... But in crucial aspects they were kindred spirits ... [who] grappled with the same great questions—Hitler and fascism, Stalin and communism.”

It’s an intriguing thesis that in the end doesn’t quite pan out. Ricks’ narrow focus on these 20th century “isms” ignores a profound difference in attitudes by Churchill and Orwell, which in the end demonstrates a deep political chasm.

Julie Polter 5-30-2017

ON A HIGH PLATFORM in the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., sits a glass-topped casket. The museum’s deputy director, Kinshasha Holman Conwill, has called it “one of our most sacred objects.”

The casket once held the body of 14-year-old Emmett Till, an African-American boy from Chicago who, while visiting family in Mississippi in the summer of 1955, reportedly whistled at a white woman named Carolyn Bryant at a country store. A few nights later her husband and brother-in-law kidnapped Till, beating and murdering him before fastening a heavy industrial fan to his neck with wire and throwing the body into the Tallahatchie River. The local sheriff ordered Till’s body to be buried the same day it was found. Instead, one of Till’s great uncles intervened and made sure the body was returned to his mother in Chicago.

Mamie Till-Mobley allowed photographers from Jet and Ebony magazines to take pictures of Till’s mutilated face and insisted on an open casket and public viewings. Tens of thousands filed by Till’s broken body.

Anne Colamosca 3-23-2017
thierry ehrmann / Flickr

thierry ehrmann / Flickr

ON Oct. 31, 1517, an intense 33-year-old Catholic monk with deep-set eyes and a prominent chin nailed an announcement of proposed points—95 theses—for a university discussion to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Martin Luther, a well-respected University of Wittenberg professor and administrator, was attacking the sale of indulgences by the Roman Catholic Church, in which the well-to-do “bought” their relatives out of purgatory by investing in “good works” for the church. Poorer people followed suit with a few coins.

Luther was far from the only critic of indulgences, but his action got attention. Intelligent and charismatic, he was not easily dismissed. He sparked the Protestant Reformation, marking its 500th anniversary this year, at that church door. This review touches on three Luther biographies: chiefly the new Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet, by Lyndal Roper, the first woman named Regius Professor of History at Oxford University, but also Brand Luther, by Andrew Pettegree, and Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer, by Scott H. Hendrix.

Luther’s fame grew after he refused to recant his criticisms of the Catholic Church at the 1521 Diet of Worms, in front of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. Luther was declared a heretic and excommunicated. This incident, Roper writes, “probably did more to win people over to the Reformation and shape their hopes and expectations than did his theology.”

Abigail Carroll 3-23-2017

WHAT WOULD IT look like to extend radical hospitality to the “other,” spend less money in order to give more away, reclaim the Sabbath by practicing intentional rest, embrace simplicity by downsizing material possessions, and seek the renewal of ailing cities and neighborhoods by living in them rather than fleeing them—all while holding jobs and raising a flock of kids?

In The Year of Small Things, Sarah Arthur and Erin Wasinger set out to discover the answer. Inspired by the New Monasticism, a movement that integrates ancient Christian values into modern life, the two friends and their families embark on a year of small but intentional steps of faith and action, devoting each month to a different theme, whether prayer, sustainability, or serving the needs of the under-resourced city in which they live and worship.

David Ensign 3-23-2017

“IT HAPPEDN ON a Sunday night, even though I’d been a good girl and gone to church that morning.” From that opening, Ruth Everhart’s Ruined begs the question: If the sovereign lord of the universe wills you to suffer unspeakable pain, what choice do you have?

Find your voice, and find a better God.

Ruined is a powerful memoir of suffering, survival, and theological imagination. In the age of Donald Trump, it is also subtle yet keen political critique. With unflinching and deeply personal honesty, Everhart takes the reader through the valley of deepest shadows with eyes wide open to the horror of a home invasion and sexual assault she and four Calvin College senior housemates survived in November 1978. The assault ruined more than the author’s sense of what it meant to be a “good girl”; it also ruined her image of God.

Her strict Calvinist upbringing in the Christian Reformed Church taught that nothing happens outside of the sovereign will of God. Yet the assurances of the catechism came up short in the face of the horror and violence Everhart and her friends experienced.

In the aftermath, as days stretched to months, she was left struggling to understand how her rape could be part of God’s will or if it was the punishment God brought upon her for the sin of being a fallen woman. When, against the odds, the rapists were eventually sentenced to lengthy prison terms, she was left wondering: If God was responsible for that “justice,” did that also mean that God was responsible for the crime in the first place?

Cherice Bock 2-28-2017

IF YOU'RE LIKE ME, you care about creation, but have a looming gap between your concern and knowing what to do about it. It can be paralyzing to live in an age of global climate change, environmental degradation, pollution, habitat loss, ocean acidification, lead in the drinking water of cities, and the melting of polar ice caps. Many works of ecotheology explain why caring for creation is a Christian imperative but struggle to get to the how.

Enter Watershed Discipleship: Reinhabiting Bioregional Faith and Practice. We can’t easily fathom a plan to care for the entire planet, but we can envision our watershed—the area in which water flows down to a common waterway such as a creek or river. (To find your watershed, enter your zip code on the EPA’s “Surf Your Watershed” site, epa.gov/surf.) Imagine caring for your watershed, along with the network of people who also live there. Ched Myers quotes Wendell Berry’s rewording of the Golden Rule to explain how this is an act of care for the entire planet: “Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.”

In the introduction, activist theologian Myers defines the phrase “watershed discipleship” as a “triple entendre.” It reflects “ a watershed historical moment of crisis, which demands that environmental and social justice and sustainability be integral to everything we do as Christians.” It recognizes a “ a watershed context”—that we follow Jesus in a “bioregional locus.” And “it implies that we need to be disciples of our watersheds”—in other words, “learning from, following, and coming to trust ... ‘The Book of Creation.’”

Julienne Gage 2-28-2017

THE MERE MENTION of maras—gangs that formed in the U.S. and then spread throughout Central America—conjures up overcrowded prisons filled with ominous-looking, elaborately tattooed Central American youth flashing gang signs. While this reality does exist, it’s part of what German scholar Sonja Wolf calls a folkloric attempt to demonize disenfranchised sectors of society rather than invest in comprehensive social programs.

Her new academic book, Mano Dura: The Politics of Gang Control in El Salvador, offers a far deeper analysis of public policy. It’s a must-read for any aid worker or missionary hoping to build peace and prosperity in a country with one of the highest homicide rates in the world—81 homicides per 100,000 people, eight times the U.N.’s marker for an epidemic. It also raises important questions about how much violence can actually be attributed to gangs when crime data is patchy and politicized.

The book, an updated version of Wolf’s 2008 doctoral dissertation in international politics, examines two decades of attempts to “pacify” El Salvador’s gangs, a subculture that diversified and expanded after El Salvador’s 1992 U.N.-sponsored peace accords. During the 12 years prior, a civil war claimed some 75,000 lives and prompted 1 million Salvadorans to seek refuge in the U.S. Some of these young refugees joined large U.S. gangs such as 18th Street or created their own, such as MS-13, then brought their gang affiliation back to El Salvador during mass deportations in the early 1990s.

Greg Williams 2-01-2017

THIS IS A PRE-TRUMP book with serious questions for our politics in the age of Trump.

A political memoir from Michael Wear, a young evangelical strategist who worked in Obama’s faith office, it tells stories from the fights of those years and offers a vision of a future faith-in-politics.

I’m a sucker for this kind of memoir: a chastened idealist tells how people worked well together. His ideals have met reality, but Wear still believes politics can help people.

More than merely telling old war stories, Reclaiming Hope makes a sustained case for public service. It argues well that Christian love should motivate us to become active within existing political institutions. Wear highlights specifically race and religious freedom as fields needing further work (a great combination, designed to irritate people all across the ideological spectrum). We need to figure out how to live together and build cultures that respect people and enable them to live without fear.

Although Wear avoids cynicism (and criticizing his former coworkers), his time in high-level politics did chasten him. His reflections on the contentious religious issues raised during his Obama administration tenure, particularly abortion, the contraception mandate, and marriage equality, although only comprising a portion of the book, raise necessary questions for any local or national progressive coalition.

Bailey Shannon 1-31-2017

IN DOROTHY DAY: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty, author Kate Hennessy, Dorothy Day’s youngest granddaughter, gives a deeply intimate and highly credible account of her grandmother, a writer, social activist, and co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement with Peter Maurin in the 1930s. Hennessy explores themes of integrity, vocation, and community, portraying Dorothy Day honestly in her gifts and faults. But the most powerful thread is raw beauty that links together the author to her grandmother, strangers to one another, and people to God.

Day’s life was often complicated and marked by loss. Nonetheless her worldview was postured toward the words of poet Max Bodenheim: “I know not ugliness. It is a mood which has forsaken me.” Queen Anne’s Lace growing in the city, spinning wool with her grandchildren, her love for the father of her only child, standing in a breadline with seamen, or walking along the shore are all examples of the beauty that both guided and followed Dorothy Day.

Day, who was born in 1897, wasn’t yet a Catholic when she moved to New York City from Illinois in 1916 in pursuit of a writing career. She mingled with writers, artists, and radicals and was active in the social movements of the time. Hennessy notes that Day “was not always the clear-eyed visionary that we now see her as.” Day considered her life “disorderly” and moved from job to job, from one lover to another; she tried to commit suicide on two different occasions.

But even before Day knew God, she knew that God was leading her. She said, “I cannot help my religious sense, which tortures me unless I do as I believe right.”

Jasper Vaughn 12-22-2016

“A SUGGESTION: Speak much about Jesus.” Henri Nouwen’s recommendation to a friend, captured in Love, Henri—a new collection of his personal correspondence—encapsulates the priest and author’s private and public ministry. More than almost any other modern figure, Nouwen bridged Catholic/Protestant doctrinal divides with his writing to bring spiritual healing and comfort, even as he wrestled with what he termed his inner “demons.”

Edited by Gabrielle Earnshaw and released in conjunction with the 20th anniversary of Nouwen’s death, Love, Henri highlights the priest’s struggle for inner peace and his extensive web of deep friendships. While the collection does not present any shocking revelations, and contains fewer transcendent moments of raw emotion than other collections of Nouwen’s writing, it works well as a meditation on what it means to love selflessly and extend oneself over a lifetime.

In the collection, Henri is both protagonist and antagonist, healing and wounding those in his life. While Nouwen himself acknowledges “a kind of enthusiasm” in his own writing that “seems a little bit too easy,” the gift is watching him participate in these seeker/giver relationships. In early letters, he is often overly attached: “Maybe your distance simply means that I force myself upon you and there is not a mutuality that makes friendship possible.” Later, though, we see him “speak about [his] inner struggles as a source of self-understanding” and solidarity, rather than a way “to avoid difficult positions and responsibility and evoke some sympathy.”

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