“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.
FUELED BY DEEP economic insecurity, terrorist acts, and an influx of thousands of Middle Eastern refugees fleeing their homelands, a slew of bellicose, ultra-right-wing parties throughout Europe are gaining popularity in 2016. Some are reminded of the 1930s when fascists Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini and communist strongman Joseph Stalin all held power, along with dictators in several smaller states.
Today’s mostly democratically led Europe, of course, is a far cry from that bloody, disastrous decade, but the real angst that prevails still gives cause for alarm and analysis. In Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939, veteran journalist Adam Hochschild takes us back to what is seen as an important prelude to World War II.
In 1936, a broad coalition of mainly left-wing parties—liberals, socialists, anarchists, and communists—narrowly won national elections in Spain. In response Spanish Gen. Francisco Franco, supported by the fascist governments of Hitler and Mussolini, launched a rebellion against the new government. The left-leaning government forces and its supporters became collectively known as the Republicans; Franco and his coalition of the military, landed aristocracy, and most of the Catholic Church hierarchy were known as the Nationalists. This conflict, a democratically elected government attempting to fight off a fascist uprising, became the focus of international attention.
Hochschild explores the passion, commitment, and dangerous “boots on the ground” actions by Americans who volunteered to fight the fascists in Spain. Hochschild has excavated a rich trove of memoirs, letters, and unpublished books that these volunteers left behind.
REMEMBER THE thrill that went through you when C.S. Lewis told you Aslan is not a tame lion? I sometimes forget about this untamed image of God when ensconced in my “safe” Christian community.
In his recent book Rewilding the Way: Break Free to Follow an Untamed God, Mennonite minister and permaculture practitioner Todd Wynward reminds us of the importance of the wilderness in the Bible and in Christian history. Wynward calls his book an “unapologetic rallying cry to rewild a Christianity that has become terribly tame.”
He argues for a third way of enacting discipleship: not the radical renunciation of ascetics, open only to the childless and unattached, nor a life of unexamined affluence, but a life of spiritual resilience where we develop strong, place-based communities of praxis who care for one another and creation through the power of the Holy Spirit. He invites us to remember the transformation that occurs through the wilderness testing of Moses and the Israelites, many of the prophets, John the Baptist, Jesus, the apostle Paul, and the desert fathers and mothers. In the wilderness we learn about “enough,” trusting God, and how much we need one another. We learn about our paradoxical smallness and value to our loving God.
A text like this could reinforce Christian contemplative navel-gazing and a personal experience of God as only available in the sublime elements of nature, unreachable in a sullied built environment. Wynward avoids this pitfall by focusing on community and a covenanted right relationship with God, others, and creation. He discusses environmental justice, activism, and urban projects that rewild spaces closer to home.
If Pope Francis wanted a single image to illustrate the special Year of Mercy that is the current focus of his ministry and, indeed, the theme at the heart of his pontificate, he could do no better than choosing an underappreciated masterpiece by the thrilling Italian artist known as Caravaggio.
At 17, AS I SAT in a comprehensive health center in Namibia, a health care worker told my visiting religious group what the center really needed from outsiders to improve the care they offered. As a peer health educator at my high school, I entered the facility thinking I knew the universal cure for preventing HIV infection—education—and feeling sad that so many places in the world did not yet have access to the life-saving drugs because they could not afford them. I was naïve and incorrect on many fronts.
They had the drugs, the health worker told us, and they had a well-developed education plan both for prevention and antiretroviral therapy. What they really needed right then was baby formula, to prevent HIV-positive mothers from passing the virus on to their newborns. So the next time we wanted to donate to the organization, he said, please send formula or the money to purchase some, instead of knitted newborn hats or volunteers ready to paint the facility walls.
Susan R. Holman, in her book Beholden: Religion, Global Health, and Human Rights, provides valuable narrative, analysis, and information that can similarly open the eyes of religious leaders about helpful, sustainable, and respectful ways to approach health-related needs throughout the world. Unlike many global-health academics and activists, who simply dismiss religious efforts as destructive or limited, Holman asserts that religion must be incorporated into global-health initiatives “because faith matters to the large majority of people who are poor in this world.” Global-health initiatives cannot ignore the influence faith has on health, moral decision-making, and community structures.
Since the beginning of the modern era almost 500 years ago, Western culture has been marked by a distinct aversion to history. Thus we have come to narrate our lives primarily through our stories as (seemingly) autonomous individuals, instead of through the social stories of the peoples and places to which we belong. One of the unfortunate consequences of this shift is that we often become blind to the socioeconomic narratives that have set the stage for our present lives.
One of these is white supremacy, which has shaped the geographical, educational, and economic systems of our land over many generations and played a formative role in the life of almost every American. In his excellent new book, Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism, Drew Hart turns our attention to this story and particularly to the ways it misshapes our Christian faithfulness. Hart begins the book with a description of how racialized our lives are. Historically, nonwhites were excluded from many important spaces in U.S. public life: schools, governmental positions, and even churches. Although few, if any, of these spaces today explicitly exclude nonwhites, our socioeconomic systems are rooted in these earlier eras and continue to promote a highly segregated way of life. “When we can be honest about how our entire society is deeply racialized,” Hart says, “we will be ready to move forward.”
Hart reminds us that race is not simply about the color of one’s skin but also about power and the question of who gets to dictate the course that our society will follow. Early in the book, he spends a chapter exploring how our understanding of Jesus is often too white. We are inclined to imagine Jesus as an influencer, one who works in the upper echelons of our hierarchical society and who has the power to control the course of society. Hart emphasizes that this is not the Jesus that we find in the gospels, who aligned himself with the marginalized and who mostly rejected hierarchical society. “Where the old order dominated and violently lorded over others,” Hart observes, “the kingdom of God arose from the bottom, margins, and cracks of society, freely inviting people to share in the peace and justice of God made available in the presence of Jesus.”
HEBERT ROBINSON Marbury’s Pillars of Cloud and Fire: The Politics of Exodus in African American Biblical Interpretation achieves the distinction of providing fresh insight in well-covered territory. Marbury, with imagination and impressive intellectual range, explores the uses of Exodus by African Americans in struggles for freedom, respect, and full inclusion into the democratic mechanisms of American political life.
For the past four decades, scholars in fields as disparate as African-American religious history, preaching, rhetoric, constructive theology, and American studies have noted a fundamental duality: White Christian immigrants perceived Britain as Pharaoh and America as the Promised Land; enslaved Africans, by contrast, saw America as a strange land in which white Christian immigrants were Pharaoh. Instead of covering this important though beaten path, Marbury employs an alternative strategy.
What’s his take? Marbury’s book acknowledges this rich history, specifically the first two generations of African-American biblical scholarship. Then he pivots quickly to define cultural studies as a foundational discipline anchoring his reading of the text. What this means is that Marbury unpacks the significance of scripture by assessing the canonical account as well as the life-world and aims of individual interpreters who employ what Hebrew Bible scholar Renita Weems calls reading strategies for the text. The arc of Marbury’s analysis stretches from the antebellum era to the black power movement.
Among the people who Lee studies in Rescuing Jesus is Sojourners’ own Chief Church Engagement Officer Lisa Sharon Harper, who confronted the overwhelming whiteness of her evangelical campus ministry. Despite hearing otherwise from her religious leaders, she knew her whole identity as an African-American woman with a commitment to racial justice was an essential part of her faith.
And many other leaders are featured: Jennifer Crumpton, who grew up hearing conservative gender complementarian teachings, now challenges the patriarchal structures of evangelicalism through her ministry and call to lead. And there’s Will Haggerty and Tasha Magness and other LGBTQ students at Biola University, a private Christian college with explicitly anti-queer policies. Despite the threat of expulsion, these students founded an underground network of support and solidarity for LGBTQ Biolans.
Imagine a test on world religions that asks this question: “Who founded Christianity?”
Jesus, right? Wrong.
MANY KNOW Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister as a prophetic spiritual writer and an engaging speaker; others call to mind her sister-leadership, her feminism, and her defiance of the Vatican. What Tom Roberts’ startling new biography uncovers, with the full cooperation of Sister Joan, are the horrors of a childhood filled with violence and poverty and the vivid details of her growth as a spokesperson for women’s equality in the Catholic Church.
The book’s three parts each deal with a phase in Chittister’s spiritual growth. The early years, with harrowing accounts of protecting her mother from a brutal and alcoholic stepfather and entering an Erie Benedictine community still steeped in old-world traditions, conclude with Chittister receiving her Ph.D. from Penn State, a first for her order.
Part two chronicles the tumultuous middle years when religious communities everywhere were adapting to a radically changing world. Chittister grew in critical consciousness about the role of women in the church and served three terms as prioress of her order, helping her community to move from its traditional vocation of teaching to serving a changing neighborhood. Their projects, under the umbrella term of peacemaking, took the form of urban gardens, art workshops, afterschool programs, peace centers, houses of hospitality, and soup kitchens, and eventually to the formation of online communities of monastic spirituality. For those who haven’t read Chittister’s own writing on these years, Roberts could have included more information on pre-Vatican II convent life here.
Part three finds Chittister moving beyond the community of U.S. sisters to worldwide leadership, ably assisted by her lifelong friend Sister Maureen Tobin. Chittister traveled on peacemaking journeys to Palestine and Israel, worked in Haiti and the Philippines, and took part in several worldwide conferences, including the 1995 U.N. World Conference on Women in Beijing and an ecumenical conference in Nairobi. All this while still plagued by the ravages of childhood polio!
In 2001, Chittister was invited to speak at the first international conference of Women’s Ordination Worldwide, to be held in in Dublin. Vatican officials ordered her prioress, the late Christine Vladimiroff, to “forbid and prohibit” Chittister’s participation. Roberts details the courage of Vladimiroff and the community as they collectively resisted the Vatican in support of Chittister.
When Chittister addressed the Dublin conference about discipleship, she asked “What do the people really need?” answering that “they need the sacred, not the sexist ... more prophets of equality, not more pretenders to a priesthood of male privilege. They need discipleship, not canonical decrees.” In her assertion that Christian discipleship will, sooner or later, “tumble a person from the banquet tables ... to the most suspect margins of both church and society,” she foreshadowed some of Pope Francis’ wisdom. She begged that the question of women as priests be seriously considered in papal circles, lamenting that it had not yet happened. (It still has not yet happened.)