Books

Faith's Power and Variety

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

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

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

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

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July 2015
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Tell Me Why

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

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

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

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July 2015
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Improving Our Safety Net

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

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

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

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Escaping The Bonds Of Privilege

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

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

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

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

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'The Road to Character' Misses Grace

Cover art for "The Road to Character."

Cover art for "The Road to Character."

Virtue is worth thinking about. We should think, carefully, about the kind of person we want to be and the kind of habits we want to develop. In The Road to Character, Brooks asks these questions of us, rightly urging us to be concerned with developing an inner moral life of virtue and integrity. Unfortunately, his self-focused attitude toward morality leaves little room for grace for the morally weak — which is all of us.

When asked directly about the relation of grace and individual agency, at a recent Trinity Forum event, Brooks confessed that he simply didn’t know — that he had no idea which of the two should take precedence.

I don’t know Brooks’ personal faith, nor do I intend to cast aspersions on his morality. Still, he panders to all of my worst inclinations in writing The Road to Character as a stoic moral theology, with only slight glimmers of grace to lighten the way. Brooks holds up several vastly different exemplars of a moral life, from Montaigne to Eisenhower, who are united in a certain integrity and humility — an unwillingness to be governed by circumstances that are outside of our control, while focusing on the things that we can.

Brooks reduces God to being a helper needed by some, while others are perfectly capable of struggling through their moral issues alone. To Brooks, a self-built journalist should be imitated as much as a grace-oriented social worker, or a novelist who was motivated by adulterous love as much as a bishop who was driven by love for God. In his moral universe, there are many ways of developing yourself. The better ones focus on building virtues rather than a resume, but all provide pathways for individual development.

When 'Saving the World' Hurts

Image courtesy 'Runaway Radical' book page on Facebook

In recently released Runaway Radical: A Young Man’s Reckless Journey to Save the World, Jonathan Hollingsworth and his mother, Amy Hollingsworth (best-selling author of The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers) tell the story of college-age Jonathan’s mission trip to the African country of Cameroon. After participating in a short-term mission trip to Honduras, Jonathan felt inspired to serve others in a more profound way. When he connected with a missions organization that promised him a year of exciting opportunities to serve in Africa — and he was able to raise the necessary funding — he seized hold of the opportunity with a vulnerable heart and a zeal for personal sacrifice.

After reading the above description, you might be surprised to learn that Runaway Radical is actually a story of spiritual abuse. But by the time Jonathan prepared to leave for his yearlong trip to Cameroon, his entire family — and his supporters — were groomed for abuse. They were groomed by ideas perpetuated by many people and many organizations, teachings many Christians would follow without much of a second thought. The first idea asserts that everything done in God’s name is good. The second idea works in companion with the first, declaring there is always more you can be doing, more you can be sacrificing, to prove your commitment to your God and to his mission.

When Jonathan traveled to Cameroon, not only did his host prevent him from serving in the ways he had hoped, his mission organization used him and his funding for their own selfish purposes with little regard for his health and well-being. During his time in Cameroon, Jonathan’s organization forbade him from developing relationships with locals whose behavior did not follow their stringent moral code, defined for him who the “real” Christians were, and denied him immediate access to medical care. Jonathan also learned that the leader of the organization lied to him about the status of the the supposed projects of which Jonathan was to be a part.

What began as Jonathan’s eager and well-intentioned trip slowly and painfully morphed into a constricted and disillusioning journey of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual anguish.

Reclaiming the Prophetic Edge

“WE ARE AT the moment when our lives must be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly.”

Martin Luther King Jr. gave this stinging critique of the apathetic nature of both the U.S. church and the general public more than 40 years ago. While some things have changed for the better, the truth remains that the three evils of society that King named (racism, militarism, materialism) continue to pervade U.S. culture, crippling our moral and ethical foundation.

It is difficult to imagine that someone the FBI once labeled as “the most dangerous man in America” would one day have his own national holiday. Each year we celebrate the life of King with an incomplete and romanticized retelling of the impact he had on society during and after the civil rights movement. He dreamed of a better nation, but what was it about his dream that made him a nightmare to the U.S. government?

That is essentially the question that Cornel West attempts to answer with his latest book, The Radical King. This is the 10th book in the King Legacy series, a partnership between the estate of Martin Luther King Jr. and Beacon Press. West curated 23 selections, ranging from King’s Palm Sunday sermon on Mohandas K. Gandhi to his speech titled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” which he delivered exactly one year to the day before he was assassinated. West utilizes this wide array of King’s most important writings and orations to illustrate just how radical he was.

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Excerpt: Something Transcendent

Rosemarie Freeney Harding describes the reaction of her friend—Albany, Georgia-based civil rights leader Marion King—to a physical attack.

In the summer of 1962, in the middle of the Albany campaign, Marion and I were both pregnant. During the campaign, Marion often visited movement workers who were jailed in local facilities throughout Dougherty and Terrell counties—taking them food, checking on conditions where they were kept, relaying messages. On one occasion as she exited a jail, a policeman who felt she was not moving fast enough kicked her in the back so that she fell to the ground. Marion fell so hard that she lost the baby.

Some of us went to see her at her home when she was released from the hospital. As we waited our shock and pain mixed with anger. ... We naturally assumed she would share our sense of indignation and assault. But something else was happening. When Marion came into the room, walking slowly so as not to exacerbate her pain, there was something in her face. A kind of light. Like a victory, a resplendence. It’s hard to explain, because it wasn’t prideful and it wasn’t false. It helped to quiet us—our anger, our judgment. And we recognized it.

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What Matters Most?

EARLY IN Being Mortal, surgeon Atul Gawande tells the story of Joseph Lazaroff, a patient with incurable prostate cancer. His medical team pursued multiple treatments, including emergency radiation and surgery, but Lazaroff ultimately died. What most struck Gawande later was that he and the team avoided talking honestly about Lazaroff’s choices—even when they knew he couldn’t be cured.

“We could never bring ourselves to discuss the larger truth about his condition or the ultimate limits of our capabilities, let alone what might matter most to him as he neared the end of his life,” Gawande writes. “The chances that he could return to anything like the life he had even a few weeks earlier were zero. But admitting this and helping him cope with it seemed beyond us.”

Why is that? For one, Gawande’s medical training didn’t prepare him for dealing with frailty, aging, or dying, he writes. He and his peers were taught to “fix,” to heal people with expertise, tools, and tests. Like most doctors, he approached his patients’ challenges as medical problems to solve, whether they were the accumulations of old age or terminal illness.

But a decade into his practice, Gawande is arguing for a change. Being Mortal is a conversation about why and how. For all its triumphs, medicine doesn’t—and shouldn’t—hold all the answers when it comes to aging and death.

Gawande looks at aging and societal shifts over the last decades, particularly the development of nursing homes (hospitals needed a place to put elderly patients who had nowhere else to go) and their limitations—something he saw through the experience of his grandmother-in-law, Alice Hobson.

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Conquering A Great Divide

WE LIVE IN an age of deep fragmentation. Like the ancient Gnostics, who believed in a deep divide between mind and body, we too are inclined to elevate the mind, or the spirit, over the body. The critic Harold Bloom once suggested that the religious practice of most Americans is “closer to ancient Gnostics than to early Christians.”

Ragan Sutterfield’s new memoir, This is My Body: From Obesity to Ironman, My Journey into the True Meaning of Flesh, Spirit, and Deeper Faith, recounts the story of his own struggles amid the fragmentation of our times. Having wrestled with being overweight since his childhood, Sutterfield eventually finds himself with a failing marriage and at his heaviest weight. He is faced with the incongruity that he is an environmentalist and farmer, doing grueling work to care for the land and creation, and yet taking poor care of his own body.

This is My Body is a compelling story of conversion, not unlike St. Augustine’s Confessions, as Sutterfield finds himself drawn out of the typical U.S. sort of Christianity that has little regard for the body and into a deeper faith in Christ, in which spirit and body are deeply interwoven. After the collapse of his first marriage, Sutterfield surrenders himself to the disciplines needed to care better for his body, specifically controlling his diet and becoming serious about exercise. From this conversion point onward, Sutterfield begins to learn and experience an incarnational faith in which our bodies cannot be taken for granted. He writes:

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