Book

With Piercing Wit and Deep Affection

THERE IS STILL a political definition of “Christian” out there that is depressingly familiar: the right-wing voting, Fox News-sourced agitprop spewer who uses Jesus to shoehorn others into something the actual Lord of the universe could care less about. Lillian Daniel is not going to take this definition anymore, but she’s not mad as hell. She’s winsome as heaven. Her humor clears the way for her preaching to hit home, and her love for the church, both her congregation and universal, anchors this work. Give it out to your friends and to strangers on the street.

First, Daniel’s humor: It is hard to give examples of her humor without them falling flat. She’s at her droll best when the reader’s defenses aren’t up. This isn’t the humor of the warm-up act before the preacher gets on to something serious—she often drives her meatiest points home with her funniest stuff. For example, a running motif in the book is the airplane companion who thinks he’s being edgy when he says to the pastor beside him that he sees God in rainbows and sunsets. This “spiritual but not religious” mindset is now the bland norm in America, not some spectacular new revelation: “They are far too busy being original to discover that they are not.”

Some of Daniel’s most withering observations are reserved for the mainline church she loves: the sneering religious critic is told “all those questions actually make him a very good mainline Protestant.” The self-congratulatory short-term missionary who comes home convinced how “lucky” she is to live in America receives this barb: “When generosity begets stupidity it wasn’t really generosity to begin with.”

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The Endlessly Fascinating Word

  • Preaching God's Transforming Justice, edited by Dale P. Andrews, Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, and Ronald J. Allen, is a lectionary commentary series from Westminster John Knox Press that helps preachers better proclaim the biblical call to be agents of God's love and justice in the world. Embodying that mission in a small but key way, the 90 contributors include close to equal numbers of women and men and represent significant ethnic and racial diversity. Each volume provides commentary for all the year's lectionary days, plus essays on 22 "Holy Days of Justice," from World AIDS Day to Children's Sabbaths. The first two volumes, for Years B and C, are already available. The Year A volume is due for release in August.
     
  • The Revised Common Lectionary's readings for each Sunday—four selected scriptures, generally one each from the Psalms, the rest of the Hebrew Bible, the epistles, and the gospels—are heard by millions of Christians each week. Timothy Matthew Slemmons, an assistant professor of homiletics and worship at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, has been captivated by what isn't heard. In Year D: A Quadrennial Supplement to the Revised Common Lectionary (Cascade Books), he argues for an expansion of the lectionary in order to present a fuller portrait of God's revelation. It includes a proposed one-year set of readings that does not shy away from many difficult texts, including from the Psalms and prophets.

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Relearning to Read

DREAMS CAN serve a powerful purpose. Jacob dreamed a ladder and was renamed Israel. Joseph dreamed the sun and moon and stars and was sold into slavery. The magi dreamed a warning and returned home by way of another road.

Years ago I had a dream. I sat, a child, on a dirt floor. Around me paced a horse, saddled, ready. In front stood an immense door, cathedral-tall and brooding. And though open, the space within was dark. I was holding a light. And in the dream, I knew we were to bring light into that darkness. And the darkness—the darkness was the church.

In Truth Speaks to Power: The Countercultural Nature of Scripture, Walter Brueggemann, professor emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, bears light to the exegetical (seminary lingo for interpretive) work and examination of the interplay between truth and power found in both familiar and less familiar narratives of Old Testament scripture. Rigorous in content, the read is nevertheless accessible to scholar and novice alike.

Brueggemann's concern with the interplay of truth and power rests on the observation that far too often truth, even biblical truth, is found colluding with and legitimizing the self-serving and self-preserving agenda of totalistic and monopolizing authorities. To use biblical imagery, truth sides with the Pharaohs and the Solomons of the world and not with those on its margins and periphery.

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And Now for Something Different

WHEN A COLLEAGUE told me Sojourners had received a review copy of the latest Thursday Next novel by Jasper Fforde, I was delighted—and confused. My delight came because I’m a huge fan of the series, whose protagonist Thursday lives in an alternate-reality U.K. and, in previous novels, has worked for Jurisfiction, the policing agency within fiction. My favorite scene was when, several novels back, she helped Great Expectations’ Miss Havisham moderate an anger management group in Wuthering Heights, set up to keep it from going the way of “that once gentle comedy of manners, ‘Titus Andronicus.’”

However, it was unclear why anyone would send a book from this series to a Christian social justice-oriented magazine. My best guess, as I gleefully devoured The Woman Who Died A Lot, was that some hilariously over-optimistic publicist thought we’d be interested in the novel’s subplot in which God reveals Godself by smiting various cities with columns of fire—sometimes in response to sin, sometimes to “unimaginative architecture, poor restaurants, or even an overly aggressive parking fine regime.” Thursday’s hometown of Swindon is next on the smite list, possibly to increase God’s bargaining position against the locally based Global Standard Deity church. The GSD, having unified the world’s religions, plans to use its “collective bargaining powers” to open formal negotiations with God, starting with the question, “What, precisely, is the point of all this?”

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Converted, But Still Wrestling

SOME BOOKS MAKE you want to sit down with the author on a sunny afternoon for a nice cup of tea. You would be excited to talk about how the book resonated with your own journey. For me, From Willow Creek to Sacred Heart: Rekindling My Love for Catholicism, by Chris Haw, is such a book.

Haw, a young, passionate, and deeply self-reflective theologian, shares his spiritual memoir. Part one recounts Haw's faith journey from a childhood as a lukewarm Catholic to teenage years at the evangelical megachurch Willow Creek, to college—including brief but powerful months in Belize, as well as days of protest against the Iraq war—and eventually to his present life in the apocalyptic landscape of Camden, N.J., where he returned to the Catholic Church.

Part two presents Haw's theological reflections on a variety of questions he has raised along his journey. He also focuses on common objections against the Catholic Church, such as the nature of the Mass as a sacrifice, the church's reliance on human tradition over the Bible, its hierarchical system, alleged ritualism, embellished architecture and ornaments, devastating scandals—including child molestation—and so on. Haw explores such challenging issues thoughtfully and courageously, while humbly accepting that he still struggles with them. Despite it all, Haw longs to see beauty and hope furthered through the Catholic Church.

I am a Catholic convert. I was raised in a Methodist family and trained in Protestant seminaries. By the time I decided to convert to Catholicism, I was starting my first year in the doctoral program of theological studies at Emory University. Feminist theology played a central role in both my theological education and spiritual formation, and it continues to today.

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An Unhindered Hope

IN EARLY AUGUST 2010, 10 aid workers were murdered, execution-style, in the province of Badakhshan, in northeastern Afghanistan. Among them were six Americans, two Afghans, a Briton, and a German, all part of a medical mission. It was the deadliest attack on aid workers the country had seen.

Dan Terry, 63, an American humanitarian who, with his family, had called Afghanistan home for more than 30 years, was among the dead.

What compels a person to risk his or her life in a foreign land so riddled with conflict? For Terry it was simple—he was called to a life of peacemaking and service.

A friend of Terry's since childhood, writer Jonathan Larson draws us into Terry's passionate character and the vision he shared with friends in Afghanistan: reconciliation and dialogue. "In the end, we're all knotted into the same carpet," Terry was fond of saying. From a swath of interviews with family, friends, and colleagues, both Western and Afghan, Larson has assembled "oral narratives," sharing with us the exhilarating life of a generous and gentle man, heroic but humble.

The best advice I received as a humanitarian aid worker in Afghanistan was from a leader cut from the same cloth as Terry: "Make no assumptions" and "listen first." We too often accept media caricatures of the other, labels that shut down discourse and clamp off possibility and hope. Challenging this, Terry insisted on the unwavering potential of each person he met. "Categorical 'enemies' have rescued me ... again and again," he once wrote to friends.

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The Church's Alternative Currency

DANIEL BELL'SThe Economy of Desire juxtaposes Christianity and capitalism, situating both in the context of postmodernity. The main argument of the book is that performing works of mercy—both corporal and spiritual—constitutes an alternative economy that can resist capitalism. Capitalism, in Bell's construal, is an economic system founded on voluntary contracts, private property, and an ideological regime where the rule of the market transcends the rule of law and disregards the reign of God in Christ.

The author draws on the work of philosophers Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze to set up a philosophical framework for talking about power and desire. His treatment of Foucaultian insights on the ubiquity of power is meant to decenter the state as the primary engine of social change. Deleuze's work builds on Foucault's argument by conceptualizing people—and society at large—as flows of desire. Taken together, the claim is potentially but not necessarily democratic: Social structures organize desire in particular ways and are malleable due to the fact that power resides not only in the state or market but in the relational networks of everyday people. Under this account, for instance, the typical presidential election is not simply about securing votes, but about directing the aspirations and actions of the electorate toward a collective passion for growing the economy, expanding the middle class, and so on. Capitalism, for Bell, secures our loyalty because it shapes what we do as well as what we desire.

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A Deeper Engagement

DR. JAMES BROWNSON'S book Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church's Debate on Same-Sex Relationships calls us all into a deeper engagement with the Bible itself, exploring in the most thoughtful and thorough ways not just what it says but, more important, what these inspired words of revelation truly mean.

On the one hand, Brownson argues that many of those upholding a traditional Christian view of same-sex relationships have made unwarranted generalizations and interpretations of biblical texts that require far more careful and contextual scrutiny. On the other hand, those advocating a revised understanding often emphasize so strongly the contextual and historical limitations of various texts that biblical wisdom seems confined only to the broadest affirmations of love and justice.

For all, Brownson invites us into a far more authentic, creative, and probing encounter with the Bible as we consider the ethical questions and pastoral challenges presented by contemporary same-sex relationships in society and in our congregations. In so doing, Brownson does not begin by focusing on the oft-cited seven biblical passages seen as relating to homosexuality. Rather, he starts by examining the underlying biblical assumptions made by those holding to a traditional view, and dissecting the undergirding perspectives held by those advocating a revised view.

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What Does It Mean to Be on God's Side?

"My concern is not whether God is on our side...but to be on God's side."
"My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God's side." - Abraham Lincoln

I RECENTLY FINISHED a new book, which we launch on April 1, the day after Easter. The beginning of the Easter season is a liturgically appropriate moment for the introduction of a hopeful book in what many feel is a hopeless time.

I wanted to tell you, our faithful magazine readers, why I wrote this book, and why I called it On God's Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn't Learned About Serving the Common Good.

This is not just another book for me. I wrote it during a three-month sabbatical that started in a monastery overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Every day started before sunrise with prayers, walks, yoga, and exercise, followed by writing the rest of the day. My other discipline was not to write or comment publicly on the news. I watched the nation's political discourse each night after a day of writing and found it more depressing than ever. It was an election year.

The resulting book is not about politics in the narrow sense, but about how to engage our personal and public lives with an ancient but timely idea and practice—the common good—that has long and deep historical roots across many religious faiths and secular notions of democracy. I sought to explore the biblical and theological roots of the idea, and then apply it to the most basic questions of economic trust, the role of government, civility, renewing democracy, globalization, conflict resolution in a violent world, and, of course, what our faith can contribute to the common good with the world as our parish. Most compelling, I found Jesus' call to love our neighbors to be the gospel foundation for serving the common good, and the excerpt in this issue, "A Gospel for the Common Good" (page 16), makes the case for that.

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'But Why?'

TODAY, Greg Bright, 56, sits on the cement porch of his yellow clapboard house in New Orleans' 7th Ward and rests his hand on the head of his yellow dog, Q. It is 2012, and he often finds himself musing over the notion of time—time past, time lost, time wasted. "It feels like a minute since I been out here," he says. It took some time to adjust to life on the outside, he admits, and once, on a dark rainy morning as he found himself biking seven miles in the rain to his miserable job working the line in a chicken plant in Mississippi, he felt real despair—just recognizing that he was 47 years old and had never owned a car. He tried hard to dismiss the sobering thought that, arrested at age 20 and doing 27 years of time, he'd been "seven more years in prison than I was on the streets." Sometimes, he says, "it's little things like that" that really threaten to drag him down into sorrow.

So he chose to do something that both keeps those wasted years fresh in his memory yet also mitigates the sense of powerlessness he sometimes feels. He helps to educate others in the hopes that his story will spur reforms. He is not an educated man—his formal schooling stopped in sixth grade—but he is one of dozens and dozens of ex-cons who form a vital link in the post-Katrina criminal justice reform efforts through various organizations such as Resurrection After Exoneration, a holistic reentry program for ex-offenders, and Innocence Project New Orleans. Greg tells his story to students, activists, politicians, church groups, friends, strangers—anybody with time to spare and an inclination to listen—doggedly putting a face on an abstract idea, injustice.

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