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.’”
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.
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.
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.”
“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.”
DO WE LIVE in a post-Christian era? Catholic monk Thomas Merton thought so, back in 1962, when his anti-war book Peace in the Post-Christian Era was banned by monastic censors.
He would surely come to the same conclusion today, when we hear a pulpit Christianity still identified with war and nationalism and listen in shock to a new U.S. president woefully ignorant of the peril of nuclear war. Our deeply divided nation holds scant promise for peace in our streets or in the world, despite the growing chorus of Christian peacemakers.
This new book by Jim Forest adds both deep compassion and timely advice to that chorus. The wise words of Merton, who served unofficially as “pastor to the peace movement” during the Vietnam War, are needed now more than ever. Clearly titled chapters quote from Merton’s published writing as well as his letters to Forest and other peacemakers.
In October 1961, The Catholic Worker published Merton’s essay “The Root of War is Fear,” and Merton ran afoul of monastic censors. He was eventually silenced publicly but fortunately was allowed to circulate Peace in the Post-Christian Era in mimeographed form and to continue writing letters, although for several years everything passed through the censor’s hands. One of the delights of this book by Forest is the first publication of an uncensored and scathingly sardonic letter Merton wrote under the pseudonym “Marco J. Frisbee.”
IN 1967, I TRAVELED with activist friends from New York to Baltimore to support four people there who poured blood on the 1A files that compelled young men into the military and the massacre in Vietnam. The “Baltimore 4,” as they became known, committed the first of some 100 actions focused on draft boards, the source of cannon fodder in the ever-escalating wars in Indochina. It was during one of these trips that I met Willa Bickham and her husband, Brendan Walsh. Our friendship has been rich, varied, invaluable.
In The Long Loneliness in Baltimore, Walsh and Bickham tell of their nearing 50 years serving the people of Baltimore as the Viva House Catholic Worker. It is a story that needs telling, especially now in this country that is profoundly ruptured by economic and racial conflict.
Try as the politicians and the press might, it is impossible to disengage economics from race. Bickham and Walsh know this intimately, living in the midst of an impoverished black neighborhood. They have experienced drugs, murders, robberies, and destruction right outside their front doors. The alley that runs beside their home, thanks to their creativity, is marked with memorials to men and boys shot and killed there. Repeatedly, after almost every major killing, Walsh has told the press what has become crystal clear to him: that in Baltimore City (as in too many cities), selling drugs is the only job that exists for all-too-many people of color.
In the garden outside Viva House is the Hope Stone. In Bickham’s script, it quotes Martin Luther King Jr.: “We will hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.” That is the invitation to all who come to Viva House for whatever reason, to meet whatever need. Each is sure to receive respectful and caring human interaction, food, fellowship, help with bills, a place to escape the cold or heat or rain, a place of justice and peace.
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. did not initiate black prophetic preaching; he was, rather, initiated into it. Rev. Kenyatta Gilbert’s A Pursued Justice: Black Preaching from the Great Migration to Civil Rights is a theological origin story about the distinctive rhetorical tradition that is black prophetic preaching.
The text begins by naming the social crisis of the Great Migration—shorthand for a massive demographic shift of 1.5 million African Americans from the South to the North between 1916 to 1940—as an essential context for understanding black prophetic preaching. This tradition of Christian proclamation—which Gilbert calls “exodus preaching”—is framed in the context of black pastors seeking to respond theologically to the pressures of injustice, prejudice, and segregation that black migrant workers navigated in Northern urban communities in the inter-war period. Of special note, Gilbert surfaces the social gospel tradition of African-American clerics who, unlike white social gospel leaders Walter Rauschenbusch, Josiah Strong, Washington Gladden, and others, demonstrated a desire to not only build institutional churches that confronted industrial evils but also to address systemic issues of lynching, police brutality, and so on.
While the entire book makes an important contribution to the study and practice of preaching, the third chapter, in particular, sparkles with insight. Within it, Gilbert marshals a solid cast of intellectuals—including Paulo Freire and Zora Neale Hurston—to land on a four-part definition of prophetic preaching. He contends that prophetic preaching unmasks systemic evil, remains hopeful in difficult situations, aids listeners in naming their own reality, and displays a will to adorn. The criterion of adornment—with patient attention to aesthetic categories of beauty, vision, and desire—is some of the most creative theological writing, in any genre, that you are likely to read. On a practical level, the definition provides a yardstick against which working preachers and homiletics faculty can assess the strength of contemporary pulpit work.
“YOU HAVE MADE us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”
These oft-quoted words, delivered from pulpits, books, and classrooms through the centuries, came from the theological giant St. Augustine. Augustine is widely noted as one of the most important theologians in Western Christianity. His acclaimed works, most notably Confessions and City of God, have shaped the thinking and spirituality of pastors, scholars, and regular church-going folk.
However, even with all the pages written about Augustine, there’s been a missing element that hasn’t been significantly excavated, namely, Augustine’s mestizo makeup. This is why historical theology scholar Justo González’s new book, The Mestizo Augustine: A Theologian Between Two Cultures, is a welcome and much-needed contribution to Augustinian theology.
The central thrust of The Mestizo Augustine is the exploration of the “mestizo” nature of Augustine and his theological journey. The word “mestizo” (which flows out of Latino/a theology) is a Spanish word that captures what it means to be of mixed heritage. Being mestizo is a recognition of hybridity or, as González notes, “to belong to two realities and at the same time not to belong to either of them.” This mestizaje lens is needed to better understand Augustine.
González unpacks the African/Roman hybridity of Augustine. This hybridity manifested in language, philosophical frameworks, and traditions. For example, being mestizo, Augustine lived in two worlds as it pertained to understanding the concept and practice of authority. González notes that in African culture, authority rested in the holiness, wisdom, and charisma of a leader. In Roman culture, authority did not rest on individual character but “in the function to which that person had been assigned.” Being mestizo meant Augustine needed to wrestle with the implications of these two worlds.
IN THE EARLY 1940s, Raoul Wallenberg was a slight, balding young man living modestly in Stockholm. He worked for a trading company that imported Hungarian poultry to Sweden. Wallenberg’s colleagues were mainly Hungarian Jews.
He had trained in the U.S. to be an architect. But on his return to Sweden, Wallenberg discovered that he didn’t have the engineering courses required to be hired in his homeland. His other career alternative, banking, also eluded him. The extended Wallenberg family owned one of Sweden’s most prosperous banks, Stockholms Enskilda Bank. But they found Wallenberg to be overly talkative, too artistically inclined, and having a penchant for drama that did not signal, for them, the makings of a top-drawer Swedish banker. So Wallenberg fell into depression, feeling that he was a failure, now known to his family disparagingly as “the grocer.”
Yet this unfulfilled young man would become, virtually overnight, one of the great heroes of World War II.
Veteran Swedish journalist Ingrid Carlberg has written a remarkable, nuanced, 600-page biography featuring extensive original research and new material: Raoul Wallenberg: The Heroic Life and Mysterious Disappearance of the Man Who Saved Thousands of Hungarian Jews from the Holocaust. The English translation of this award-winning work was released earlier this year.
When the Germans sent 500 Norwegians to Auschwitz in late 1942, the outraged Swedish government, which had remained neutral, declared that Sweden would accept any Jew who could make it to the Swedish border. They also decided to set up a special humanitarian aid mission in Budapest to help Hungarian Jews being annihilated by Hitler’s troops. A colleague at the trading company immediately recommended Wallenberg to the Swedish Foreign Mission to head the new mission.
SHE: ROBED AND WORDLESS, by Sister Lou Ella Hickman, is a word-feast of poetry about often-overlooked women in the Bible.
Hickman creates a beautiful narrative and poetic arc as she explores biblical terrain. I celebrate how the book gives voice and imagery to our foremothers. Each poem is well-crafted, and the book has been organized to guide readers into the question editor Tom Lombardo asks in his introduction to the book: “After Eve, who is the next woman named in the Bible?”
Hickman, a Catholic sister, is an oft-published poet who in this book weaves together with striking lyrical threads scriptural narratives and her own substantive imaginings about the hopes, dreams, and fears of women about whom we know very little. Many women in the Bible are unnamed and have no voice, but Hickman tunes our ears to listen for these ancient unheard ones. In doing so she invites us to see and hear the countless but wisdom-filled “robed and wordless” women in our communities today.
Now I heard there was a secret chord
That David played and it pleased the Lord,
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It is said that Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah” has been covered more than 300 times by various artists since its 1984 release. Perhaps one of the reasons it has endured is because of the stories it tells about tragic biblical figures such as King David, who was simultaneously murderer and a “man after God’s own heart.”
Inspired by her son, who played an arrangement of “Hallelujah” on the harp for his bar mitzvah, Geraldine Brooks explores the profoundly paradoxical character of David in her novel The Secret Chord (paperback edition out this fall). Brooks’ unwillingness to resolve this paradox invites readers into the story to wrestle with the categories of good and evil and the nature of repentance. After the dust settles, however, readers will find that it is not the depth of David’s repentance but the abuse of power that defines his kingship.
The timeline in Brooks’ novel roughly spans David’s early ascent to power through his death and Shlomo’s coronation (Brooks uses the transliteration of the Hebrew to spell names, for example Shlomo instead of Solomon). Drawing upon the tradition that the histories of 1 and 2 Chronicles were written by the prophet Natan, David’s story is told from the perspective of the prophet. During the first battle that David is not on the battlefield with his men, the frustrated, middle-aged king commissions Natan to write his biography, so that David’s descendants may know “what manner of man” he was. David gives Natan a curious list of people to interview, including individuals that David knows will be severely critical of him, such as his estranged wives and brother. This narrative detail—like many others in the novel—serves as an explanation for scripture’s curiously flawed portrait of Israel’s most powerful king.
A FRIEND JUST told me something wise: Be skeptical but never cynical. In Assimilate or Go Home, a series of essays about her ministry and faith experience, D.L. Mayfield tells an even rarer story—of her movement from idealism through cynicism into a deeper faith. She manages to avoid sinking into an easy “wisdom” that simply excuses apathy.
Mayfield’s journey into an unperfected ministry starts when she is an idealistic high schooler, wanting to serve immigrants and refugees in her community. She discovers that this isn’t easy, as she works with and sometimes lives among Somali Bantu refugees, first in Bible college and then through her 20s. Even her best efforts aren’t what the community wants or needs. Instead, she finds her intentions thwarted and her ideals coming up short as she teaches English, mentors teens, and helps friends struggle through obstinate bureaucracies. All of this activity stalls in the face of a dramatically different culture and people who don’t want to be “saved.” This sense of frustration is mirrored in the structure of the book: We are never given much sense of the timeline of Mayfield’s life, just that the same challenges persist.
Mayfield describes baking a cake for the wedding of a girl she had mentored from a Somali Bantu family. This girl was only a junior in high school when she married and moved across the country with her new husband. Mayfield finds herself wondering if all the “countless conversations about colleges and careers ... harping on equitable marriages, on waiting to have children, on finishing high school” might have made things worse.
DAN ZAK WAS FIRST struck by the absurdity of it all. As a reporter for The Washington Post, he was fascinated to learn that Sister Megan Rice, Michael Walli, and Greg Boertje-Obed had crossed forested hills in the middle of the night in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and reached the center of a government complex where possibly the most dangerous material in the world is enriched and stored.
Then Zak was captured by what was behind their action—the dramatic secrecy in the development of the first atomic bomb, the tragedy of its testing on U.S. soldiers and on the unsuspecting inhabitants of the Marshall Islands, the bungling bureaucracy surrounding the entire nuclear industry, and finally the hope and resilience of the resisters who work to eliminate these perilous weapons. His book Almighty: Courage, Resistance, and Existential Peril in the Nuclear Age (Blue Rider Press) is the result.
Rice, Walli, and Boertje-Obed called their action the Transform Now Plowshares, following a tradition of serious faith-inspired nonviolent actions dating back to 1980, actions often successful in reaching their nuclear targets and resulting in prison terms.
In July 2012, the trio cut through several fences—aided by malfunctioning motion sensors—at times moving through bright floodlight and past signs warning, “Deadly force authorized.” They hung a banner on one fence that proclaimed the words that were the source of their action, the injunction from Isaiah to “hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks” (2:4).
They arrived at Y-12, a building that stores 800,000 pounds of weapons-grade uranium, the material that undergoes fusion when a nuclear bomb is detonated. Using traditional Plowshares action symbols, they streaked the white walls with the blood of activists, spurted from baby bottles they carried in their backpacks. They painted the building with the phrases “Woe to the empire of blood” and “The fruit of justice is peace.” They chipped away at the concrete walls with small hammers, and they waited.
“WE ABUSE LAND because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” So wrote Aldo Leopold in his ecological classic A Sand County Almanac, published in 1949. That same year, Erle Halliburton experimented with pumping a slurry of oil and sand into a wellhole in Oklahoma, patenting a new process he dubbed “Hydrafrac.” Within the next five years, Halliburton was treating more than 3,000 wells a month that way.
Short for “hydraulic fracturing,” fracking—a word now included in Merriam-Webster—is the process of drilling and injecting fluid into the ground at high pressure in order to release oil or natural gas inside. Today, thanks to recent technological developments, more than a million fracking sites dot the U.S. landscape.
The environmental vision of Leopold and the actions of Halliburton that fateful March both haunt the recent literary collection Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America. With literary genres that range from verse to essay and fable to investigative journalism, Fracture chronicles the ecological and cultural ruptures resulting from this highly controversial phenomenon. Co-editors Taylor Brorby and Stefanie Brook Trout have put together a devastating, disturbing collection that should be read in small bits, lest you be overwhelmed.
AS THE BLACK LIVES Matter movement has shone a light on police brutality against black people across the country, the public conversation in the United States has been unable to ignore the legacy of racism that shapes many of our nation’s most vital institutions. In his important new book, The End of White Christian America, Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), makes the bold claim that White Christian America (WCA)—the fertile ground that gave root to and energized the legacy of American racism—is dead. Granted, this does not mean the death of racism. But for those of us striving for racial reconciliation, the changing societal narrative that Jones offers here is a hopeful one.
Jones begins the book with a tongue-in-cheek obituary for WCA: “Although examiners have not been able to pinpoint the exact time of death, the best evidence suggests that WCA finally succumbed in the latter part of the first decade of the 21st century.” He ends the book with a eulogy for WCA that is much more serious in tone and draws upon the stages of grief named by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her eminent book On Death and Dying.
Jones defines the WCA as a distinctly Protestant entity, with two primary branches, white mainline Protestants and white evangelical Protestants. Jones notes that although these two subgroups are often at odds, together they comprise the “single dynasty” of WCA. “For most of the nation’s life, White Christian America was big enough, cohesive enough, and influential enough,” Jones writes, “to pull off the illusion that it was the cultural pivot around which the country turned.”
Creationist Christian tourists may soon flock to the Ark Encounter, a literal vision of Noah’s story in Genesis come to life in July as a theology-packed tourist attraction in Williamstown, Ky.
WHAT LIVES THESE two authors have lived and what lessons they can teach us! Reading David Hartsough’s lively memoir immerses us in the great peace and justice events of the last several decades. Colman McCarthy’s fascinating interchanges with high school and university students propel us into a hopeful future as we see how young minds are stretched and carry lessons learned into the world.
Hartsough’s FBI file started when he organized his first anti-nuclear protest at age 15, and it may be growing still as he directs Peaceworkers, a nonviolent training and accompaniment NGO based in San Francisco. In between are 60 years of peace work in the U.S. and the flashpoints of the world, always bringing the message of the necessity and efficacy of nonviolent direct action. In Waging Peace he relives the adventurous life of a professional peaceworker as well as the silent efficacy of his family’s tax resistance and tradition of simple living.
Whether disarming with words a knife-wielding segregationist opponent at a Virginia lunch counter, blockading with a canoe a weapons ship bound for Vietnam, or traveling to war zones, Hartsough has faithfully carried forward his commitment to nonviolence. Sometimes visiting conflict sites before they reach the radar even of other peace people, he writes of going to Cuba, Russia, Yugoslavia, and the Berlin Wall while still a college student, to Central America during the ’80s, and later to Gaza and other war zones.
In 1999, after trying unsuccessfully to persuade the world to support nonviolently the beleaguered Kosovars and thus avert a Serbian bloodbath, Hartsough attended a peace conference in The Hague. There he met Mel Duncan, and together they founded the Nonviolent Peaceforce, now the largest of several worldwide movements of accompaniment for nonviolent activists.
In California, Hartsough worked to launch the huge Abalone Alliance against the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant and campaigned against the development of nuclear weapons at the University of California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. In this century, Hartsough was one of the first to be arrested for protesting drone warfare at Creech Air Force Base.
The world is falling apart.
Admittedly, the world has always been falling apart—since Christ’s resurrection, we’ve been living in the last age, and the New Testament is full of an apocalyptic expectation—but in our modern world, we seem to be spinning apart even faster. In our pop culture, either “winter is coming” or zombies are. Robots who look just like us are threatening genocide or a perverse “Capitol” is forcing our kids to kill each other. How to Survive the Apocalypse, by Alissa Wilkinson and Rob Joustra, looks at this theme in modern culture and what it might tell us about ourselves.
This is a book written by college professors, and I mean that in the best possible way. They define their terms, keep us engaged, and push us toward engaging the world like the best professors do. And, like all good professors, they are honest about their ideological approach: They are strongly neo-reformed and use Charles Taylor’s opus A Secular Age to interpret the culture that they address.
Indeed, How to Survive the Apocalypse is basically a fleshing out of Taylor’s description of the modern age (and its difference from a pre-modern era) through fictional ends of the world. Wilkinson and Joustra examine individualism and autonomy, a quest for and skepticism of authenticity, and the appropriate source of power (the questions and obsessions that Taylor sees at the root of modernity) through a half-dozen TV and movie apocalypses and dystopias, ranging from The Hunger Games to Her. These questions press all the more in our age, in which we seem to have lost the transcendent.