Book Review: God and Empire: Jesus against Rome, Then and Now by John Crossan


Author: John Crossan
TitleGod and empire : Jesus against Rome, then and now
Publication Info: [San Francisco] : HarperSanFrancisco, c2007.
Previously Read by the Same Author: Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography
Summary/Review:

This is a complex but fascinating book that I muddled through over the course of Lent this year.  The basic thesis of this book is that Jesus Christ taught a radical message contrary to the idea of empire, whether the Roman empire of Christ’s time or the American empire today.  Pax Romana created peace through the enforcement of Roman military strength but the Kingdom of God is a true peace built on justice and equality.  Thus the violence of “civilized” humanity if challenged by Christ’s non-violence.  This is a book worthy of a contemplative reread.
Favorite Passages:

As the greatest pre-industrial and territorial empire—just as we are the greatest post-industrial and commercial empire—Rome was the expression, no more and no less, of the normalcy of civilization’s violence, first-century style. Usually we use the term “civilization” for everything that is good about our humanity—for example, poetry and drama, music and dance, art and architecture, image and narrative. Correspondingly, to call individuals or groups, places or actions, “uncivilized” is normally a calculated insult. So I need to explain very clearly what I mean in this book by the “brutal normalcy of civilization.” The point I wish to emphasize is that imperialism is not just a here-and-there, now-and-then, sporadic event in human history, but that civilization itself, as I am using that term, has always been imperial—that is, empire is the normalcy of civilization’s violence. It is, of course, always possible to oppose this empire in favor of that one, to oppose yours in favor of ours. But if you oppose empire-as-such, you are taking on what has been the normalcy of civilization’s brutality for at least the last six thousand years.

As everyone knows, civilization began immediately with fratricide: the murder of one brother by another. But the story is more detailed than that. “Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground” (4:2), and “when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him” (4:8). That inaugural fratricide was the murder of a shepherd by a farmer on his own farm. That is the first act in the invention of human civilization—the farmer displacing the shepherd—and God does not punish the farmer but only marks him forever as the future of a lost past. There is no counterviolence from God—not even the appropriate divine vengeance when, as God says, “your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!” (4:10).

I think that Jesus started by accepting John’s theology of God’s imminence but, precisely because of what happened to John, changed from that to a theology of God’s presence. John expected God’s advent, but Antipas’s cavalry came instead. John was executed, and God still did not come as an avenging presence. Maybe, thought Jesus, that was not how God acted because that is not how God is. Jesus’s own proclamation therefore insisted that the Kingdom of God was not imminent but present; it was already here below upon this earth, and however it was to be consummated in the future, it was a present-already and not just an imminent-future reality. Jesus could hardly have made such a spectacular claim without immediately appending another one to it. You can speak forever about the future-imminence of the Kingdom, but unless you are foolish enough to give a precise date, you can hardly be proved right or wrong. We are but waiting for God to act; apart from preparatory faith, hope, and prayer, there is no more we can do. When God acts, it will be, presumably, like a flash of divine lightning beyond all categories of time and place. But to claim an already-present Kingdom demands some evidence, and the only such that Jesus could have offered is this: it is not that we are waiting for God, but that God is waiting for us. The present Kingdom is a collaborative eschaton between the human and divine worlds. The Great Divine Cleanup is an interactive process with a present beginning in time and a future (short or long?) consummation. Would it happen without God? No. Would it happen without believers? No. To see the presence of the Kingdom of God, said Jesus, come, see how we live, and then live likewise.

It is certainly correct, therefore, to call Jesus’s death—or in fact the death of any martyr—a sacrifice, but substitution and suffering are not the point of sacrifice. Substitutionary atonement is bad as theoretical Christian theology just as suicidal terrorism is bad as practical Islamic theology. Jesus died because of our sins, or from our sins, but that should never be misread as for our sins. In Jesus, the radicality of God became incarnate, and the normalcy of civilization’s brutal violence (our sins, or better, Our Sin) executed him. Jesus’s execution asks us to face the truth that, across human evolution, injustice has been created and maintained by violence while justice has been opposed and avoided by violence. That warning, if heeded, can be salvation.

It is the age-old normalcy of civilization’s violent injustice that is weakness and foolishness with God, and it is God’s nonviolent justice that is weakness and foolishness for civilization’s violent normalcy.

To turn the nonviolent resistance of the slaughtered Jesus into the violent warfare of the slaughtering Jesus is, for me as a Christian, to libel the body of Jesus and to blaspheme the soul of Christ.

Recommended books:

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan , The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation by Barbara R. Rossing, Hell’s Abyss, Heaven’s Grace: War and Christian Spirituality by Lawrence Hart, and Quest for the living God : mapping frontiers in the theology of God by Elizabeth A. Johnson
Rating: ****

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Book Review: Contemplative Prayer by Thomas Keating


Author: Thomas Keating
TitleContemplative Prayer
Publication Info: [Louisville] : Sounds True, 1995

Summary/Review:

Several years ago I attended a retreat where I learned about contemplative prayer.  I found this guide by one of the major proponents of contemplative prayer, Thomas Keating, narrated by Keating himself and decided to listen to is as a refresher.  Keating begins by discussing the human condition and psychological development from early childhood.  He discusses programs that people use to seek happiness but concludes that the limitless human heart may only be filled by God.  He relates that “fear of God” does not mean the emotion of fear, but trust, reverence, and passion for God.

Centering prayer is laying aside all thought so we can open ourselves to God.   There are three aspects to this kind of prayers:

  1. a sacred word – repeated unchanging throughout prayer and important to disregarding thoughts
  2. a comfortable position but not too comfortable so you don’t fall asleep
  3. 20 minutes of time – one may only end up with 1-2 minutes of quiet, but it is quality not quantity

Rating: ***

 

Book Review: Walking the Bible by Bruce Feiler


Author and Narrator: Bruce Feiler
TitleWalking the Bible
Publication Info: HarperAudio (2005)

Summary/Review:

So, I read and reviewed the book Where God Was Born without realizing that it was a sequel to a previous journey until the author responded to my review on Twitter (oops!).   This journey goes to the places of the five books of Moses in Turkey, Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Syria, and Egypt.  Feiler summarizes the stories of patriarchs Noah, Abraham, Jacob,  Joseph, and Moses alongside his own travel adventure.  He depicts his personal religious journey as desire to be at the exact places being replaced by an understanding of the symbolism of the land. Feiler also engages in dialogue with many people Jewish and Islam about the differences between Jewish scripture and Quran. No matter what order you read them in, these two books are terrific companions to anyone’s spiritual journey.
Rating: ***1/2

 

 

Book Review: American heretics : Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and the history of religious intolerance by Peter Gottschalk


Author: Peter Gottschalk
Title: American heretics : Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and the history of religious intolerance by
Publication Info: New York: Palgrave McMillan (2013)
ISBN: 9781137278296
Summary/Review:

I received a free early reviewers copy of this book via the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

As Americans, we proudly proclaim our religious tolerance and maintain that our country was built on religious freedom.  While many forms of religious expression have flourished in the United States, Gottschalk reminds of the many instances of religious intolerance in our country from earliest settlement to the present day.  The book is divided into seven chapters focusing on:

  1. Puritan persecution of Quakers in colonial Massachusetts
  2. The struggles of Irish Catholic immigrants in Protestant-dominated cities in the 19th century
  3. The Ghost Dance and the extermination of the Sioux
  4. 20th prejudice against Jews by the Ku Klux Klan, Henry Ford, and immigration restrictions
  5. The Latter Day Saints struggle against violent opposition in the 19th century and how the political careers of George and Mitt Romney show a growing acceptance.
  6. The Branch Davidians and the vilifying of outsider groups as cults
  7. Islamophobia in the wake of the September 11th attacks

The book is short for all the topics it covers and Gottschalk really only touches upon these various topics.  The author can get oddly deep into some parts of the topics while being very broad at other times.  I also found it troubling how much he defends the Branch Davidians as a persecuted minority rather than recognizing that child rape and their vast military arsenal were a threat to the community at large.

It’s an interesting overview, and if you have a familiarity with American history there shouldn’t be too many surprises.  But if you think that religious groups have always been welcomed in the United States, you’ll want to read this book.
Recommended books: Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America by Steven Waldman and The Battle for God by Karen Armstrong
Rating: **1/2

Book Review: Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan


Author: Reza Aslan
TitleZealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth
Publication Info: Random House (2013)
ASIN: B00BRUQ7ZY
Summary/Review:

I’ve not read a lot about the historical Jesus so this short summary of his life and times was engaging and enlightening.  “His times” is an important part of the title as few historical documents survive outside the scriptures (canonical and otherwise) which tend to provide a spiritual truth rather than historical facts (or are completely made up if you’re a non-believer).  Aslan does a great job of establishing first century Judea with its Roman occupiers and Jewish elites who accommodate them.  Then there are the various Jewish groups who seek to fight against Roman oppression and/or purify the practices of the Jewish people.  It’s among these where Aslan places Jesus, a more revolutionary figure than often depicted.  The transition of Jesus from a Jewish zealot to a peaceful, spiritual leader for all peoples comes about after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. and the success of Paul to appeal to the Gentiles, the Gospels being written after this date.  While finding no historical backing for some of what the evangelists wrote about Jesus, Aslan is sensitive to the belief in Jesus as messiah that survives to today, and the revolutionary message of Jesus remains relevant.
Favorite Passages:

This is an extremely difficult matter for modern readers of the gospels to grasp, but Luke never meant for his story about Jesus’s birth at Bethlehem to be understood as historical fact. Luke would have had no idea what we in the modern world even mean when we say the word “history.” The notion of history as a critical analysis of observable and verifiable events in the past is a product of the modern age; it would have been an altogether foreign concept to the gospel writers for whom history was not a matter of uncovering facts, but of revealing truths. The readers of Luke’s gospel, like most people in the ancient world, did not make a sharp distinction between myth and reality; the two were intimately tied together in their spiritual experience. That is to say, they were less interested in what actually happened than in what it meant.

 

That Jesus had brothers is, despite the Catholic doctrine of his mother Mary’s perpetual virginity, virtually indisputable. It is a fact attested to repeatedly by both the gospels and the letters of Paul. Even Josephus references Jesus’s brother James, who would become the most important leader of the early Christian church after Jesus’s death. There is no rational argument that can be made against the notion that Jesus was part of a large family that included at least four brothers who are named in the gospels—James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas—and an unknown number of sisters who, while mentioned in the gospels, are unfortunately not named.

 

In other words, according to Jesus, Caesar is entitled to be “given back” the denarius coin, not because he deserves tribute, but because it is his coin: his name and picture are stamped on it. God has nothing to do with it. By extension, God is entitled to be “given back” the land the Romans have seized for themselves because it is God’s land: “The Land is mine,” says the Lord (Leviticus 25:23). Caesar has nothing to do with it. So then, give back to Caesar what is his, and give back to God what belongs to God. That is the zealot argument in its simplest, most concise form.  And it seems to be enough for the authorities in Jerusalem to immediately label Jesus as lestes. A bandit. A zealot.

 

To the modern mind, the stories of Jesus’s healings and exorcisms seem implausible, to say the least. Acceptance of his miracles forms the principal divide between the historian and the worshipper, the scholar and the seeker. It may then, to say that there is more accumulated historical material confirming Jesus’s miracles than there is regarding either his birth in Nazareth or his death at Golgotha. To be clear, there is no evidence to support any particular miraculous action by Jesus. How one in the modern world views Jesus’s miraculous actions is irrelevant. All that can be known is how the people of his time viewed them. And therein lies the historical evidence. For while debates raged within the early church over who Jesus was—a rabbi? the messiah? God incarnate?—there was never any debate, either among his followers or his detractors, about his role as an exorcist and miracle worker

 

Then something extraordinary happened. What exactly that something was is impossible to know. Jesus’s resurrection is an exceedingly difficult topic for the historian to discuss, not least because it falls beyond the scope of any examination of the historical Jesus. Obviously, the notion of a man dying a gruesome death and returning to life three days later defies all logic, reason, and sense. One could simply stop the argument there, dismiss the resurrection as a lie, and declare belief in the risen Jesus to be the product of a deludable mind. However, there is this nagging fact to consider: one after another of those who claimed to have witnessed the risen Jesus went to their own gruesome deaths refusing to recant their testimony. That is not, in itself, unusual. Many zealous Jews died horribly for refusing to deny their beliefs. But these first followers of Jesus were not being asked to reject matters of faith based on events that took place centuries, if not millennia, before. They were being asked to deny something they themselves personally, directly encountered. The disciples were themselves fugitives in Jerusalem, complicit in the sedition that led to Jesus’s crucifixion. They were repeatedly arrested and abused for their preaching; more than once their leaders had been brought before the Sanhedrin to answer charges of blasphemy. They were beaten, whipped, stoned, and crucified, yet they would not cease proclaiming the risen Jesus. And it worked! Perhaps the most obvious reason not to dismiss the disciples’ resurrection experiences out of hand is that, among all the other failed messiahs who came before and after him, Jesus alone is still called messiah. It was precisely the fervor with which the followers of Jesus believed in his resurrection that transformed this tiny Jewish sect into the largest religion in the world.

Recommended booksJesus Before Christianity by Albert Nolan, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time by Marcus J. Borg, The Misunderstood Jew by Amy-Jill Levine, and The Rapture Exposed by Barbara R. Rossing
Rating:

Book Review: When spiritual but not religious is not enough by Lillian Daniel


AuthorLillian Daniel
TitleWhen spiritual but not religious is not enough : seeing god in surprising places, even the church
Publication Info: New York, NY : Jericho Books, 2013.
ISBN:  9781455523085
Summary/Review: A Christian minister writes several essays about contemporary religious life, challenging people to go beyond seeing God in sunsets and waterfalls and seeking out God in the flawed human beings in the community around them.  Daniel is wise and humorous and at times sounds like a cranky old person (I looked at her author photo, she’s not), but always with the underlying goal of startling the reader into taking their relationship to God and community to a higher plane.
Favorite Passages:

“When you witness suffering and declare yourself to have achieved salvation in the religion of gratitude, you have fallen way short of what God would have you do, no matter what religion you are called to.

And by the way, while I think God does want us to feel gratitude, I do not think God particularly wants us to feel lucky.  I think God wants us to witness pain and suffering and rather than feeling lucky, God wants us to get angry and want to do something about it.

The civil rights movement didn’t happen because people felt lucky.  The hungry don’t get fed, the homeless don’t get sheltered, and the world doesn’t change because people are who are doing okay feel lucky.  We need more.” – p. 9

“At one point, the whole world was safe for animals.  Now their territory is constricted.  Human beings control so much of the landscape and we have huge areas where animals rarely go — schools, hospitals, stores, churches.  So I like to think of the sight of an animal in the airport as a special gift.  We get a glimpse of nature in a sterile place.  We get a dose of animal instinct in a place where we all have to behave ourselves.  It’s as odd as hearing a dog bark in church, and just as wonderful.” – p. 137

“I don’t want to choose.  The church has plenty of tents staked out on the battlegrounds of who Jesus is, and why it matters.  I pitch my tent in the field of mystery, and have yet to nail it down.” – p. 161

“I’m tired of playing by that dull and pedestrian set of rules, which has everything to do with a litigious, factoid-hungry culture and nothing to do with following Jesus.  I don’t come to church for evidence or for a closing argument.  I come to experience the presence of God, to sense the mystery of things eternal, and to learn a way of life that makes no sense to those stuck sniffing around for proof.” – p. 166

“I believe that there really is a connection between who we were raised to be and who we are now. It might bot be a straight line, but you cannot connect the dots.  God works through all kinds of religious communities at different points in our lives.

No spiritual home is all good or all bad. So give thanks for the small and tender blessings of every place that has never been our spiritual home, and for lessons you have learned.”  – p. 182

Recommended books:The Call to Conversion by Jim Wallis, Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller, and Pray All Ways: A Book for Daily Worship Using All Your Senses by Edward M. Hays.
Rating: ***

Book Review: Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton


Author: Alain de Botton
TitleReligion for Atheists
Publication Info: New York : Pantheon Books, c2012.
ISBN: 9780307379108
Summary/Review:

An erudite atheist, de Botton makes a good case for religion.  Not for the belief in god or the supernatural, but the basic fact that humans invented religion and carried it down through the ages that it must serve some good purpose.  In this book he proposes adopting some of the best elements of religion to secular purposes.  In chapters on subjects such as community, kindness, education, tenderness, pessimism, perspective, art, architecture, and institutions. he identifies the best of religion and make proposals for how these things may be adapted.  For example, he proposes agape restaurants where people dine and converse with strangers and universities where people read books to learn from their emotional content instead of literary analysis.  At times the ideas are silly, but I really like de Botton’s approach and open mind.  As a religious person myself, I find that extreme atheists (really, anti-theist bigots) are one side of the same coin of religious fundamentalists.  It’s good to have ideas that move beyond the tired arguments of the extremes and work toward the betterment of humanity.

Favorite Passages:

“In a world beset by fundamentalists of both believing and secular varieties, it must be possible to balance a rejection of religious faith with a selective reverence for religious rituals and concepts.  It is when we stop believing that religions have been handed down from above or else that they are entirely daft that matters become more interesting.  We can then recognize that we invented religions to serve two central needs which continue to this day and which secular society has not been able to solve with any particular skill:  first, they need to live together in communities in harmony, despite our deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses.  And second, the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to professional failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of love ones and to our decay and demise.  God may be dead, but the urgent issues which impelled us to make him up still stir and demand resolutions which do not go away….” p. 12

“The true risks to our chances of flourishing are different from those conceived of by liberterians.  A lack of freedom is no longer, in most developed societies, the problem.  Our downfall lies in our inability to make the most of the freedom that our ancestors painfully secured for us over three centuries. ” p. 77

“‘The object of universities is not to make skillful lawyers, physicians or engineers.  It is to make capable and cultivated human beings.’ – John Stuart Mill” p. 100

“Secular education will never succeed in reaching its potential until humanities lecturers are sent to be trained by African-American Pentecostal preachers.” p. 131

Recommended booksBlue Like Jazz by Donald Miller and Patience with God: Faith for People Who Don’t Like Religion (or Atheism) by Frank Schaeffer.
Rating: ****

Book Review: As It Was in the Beginning by Robert McClory


Author: Robert McClory
Title:  As It Was in the Beginning
Publication Info: New York : Crossroad Pub., c2007.
ISBN: 9780824524197

Books by the same author: Faithful Dissenters
Summary/Review: McClory boldly declares that democratization is coming to the Catholic Church, and soon, something not readily evident by the Church hierarchy’s growing conservatism in the past 3 to 4 decades.  His patient and hopeful thesis is built on a well-researched historical record of changing structures within the Church that have always returned to consensus fidelium.  Examples range from the efforts of the people to support the teachings of the Council of Nicea against bishops who campaigned for a contrary teaching to reform of the 20th century evident in the Second Vatican Council.  McClory illustrates a possible future in which the laity is included in a way that seems not just hopeful, but even possible.
Favorite Passages:

If modernity stressed reason, the church stressed faith.  If modernity stressed human progress, the church stressed original sin.  If modernity stressed freedom of thought, the church stressed the binding nature of its dogmas.  If modernity stressed democracy, the church stressed authority.  This stress-filled stalemate was to perdure for the better part of four hundred years.  If there had been even a small opening for discussion and dialogue between these two rivals, I think the church might well have served as a helpful brake on the runaway exuberance of modernity that led to riots, wars, and mass executions, of which the French Revolution is one well-known example.  By the same token, some discussion and dialogue between the two sides might have helped the church realize that many Enlightenment insights were not fundamentally different from some of its own foundational values. – p. 118-19

Recommended books: Catholic Does Not Equal the Vatican: A Vision for Progressive Catholicism by Rosemary Radford Ruether and Why You Can Disagree & Remain a Faithful Catholic by Philip S. Kaufman
Rating: ***

Book Review: Why you can disagree– and remain a faithful Catholic by Philip S. Kaufman


Author: Philip S. Kaufman
Title: Why you can disagree– and remain a faithful Catholic
Publication Info: Bloomington, IN : Meyer-Stone Books, c1989.
ISBN: 0940989239
Summary/Review:

A provocative title but a well-researched and informed look at many of the issues that divide the Catholic Church hierarchy and many of the faithful today.  Kaufman  explores the development of conscience among the people of the church over the centuries and how it has always been valued when regarding moral questions.  The idea of infallibility in teachings of the church has always had to consider the sense of the faithful (sensus fidelium) something that has not been considered or reached in many of the controversial issues of today.  These issues include birth control, divorce & remarriage, and democracy within the church.  Kaufman addresses each of these issues in detail exploring Biblical and traditional takes on the issues and how they’ve changed over time.  This is a good book to get an informed look at issues affecting the Church today and realizing that they’re not always as simple or clear-cut as they’ve been presented.
Favorite Passages:

The list of moral questions on which authoritative teaching has changed is long.  Defenders of a call for absolute obedience to all such teaching often hold that the doctrines taught were correct for their own time and circumstances, but that changed conditions and further enlightenment led to the formulation of new positions.  But such a justification can hardly be applied to Pope St. Gregory the Great’s condemnation of pleasure in marital intercourse, Innocent IV’s teaching on witches and the use of torture in judicial interrogations, or Pius IX’s condemnation of the proposition “that freedom of conscience and of worship is the proper right of each man, and that this should be proclaimed and asserted in every rightly constituted society. – p. 21

It is often argued that scandal will be given by a relaxation of current practice [regarding divorce & remarriage].  If available statistics are any indication, lack of compassion toward people in great suffering and need gives even greater scandal.  It is a question of who is being scandalized.  Should our concern be only for those who will not accept change in church teaching?  What of the scandal of those who ask: Is it moral in the face of so much suffering by so many millions of the church’s own members to maintain a discipline with such a weak biblical, historical, and doctrinal foundation? – p. 115

Since God does not govern the church directly, however, but through human beings, it is legitimate and necessary to ask what type of government comes closest to realizing the New Testament ideal.  I doubt that autocracy, in which the educated, privileged few teach and control the uneducated masses, the so-called simple faithful, ever realized that ideal.  Autocracy is particularly inappropriate in the modern world.  The form of church government that accords best with the gospel spirit is democracy. – p. 119

Recommended books: Catholic Does Not Equal the Vatican: A Vision for Progressive Catholicism by Rosemary Radford Ruether, Faithful Dissenters: Stories of Men and Women Who Loved and Changed the Church by Robert McClory, and Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit by Garry Wills.
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Poverty of Spirit by Johannes B. Metz


Author: Johannes B. Metz
Title:  Poverty of Spirit
Publication Info: Paulist Pr (1976)
ISBN: 0809119242
Summary/Review:

This is a short, but profound book reflecting on the humanity of Christ incarnated and our own human condition.  It’s one of those books that I really ought to reread and meditate upon to do it justice.  Nevertheless I can say that it is a work that is deeply challenging and examines the many forms of poverty that exist in humanity and must be embraced to follow the way of Christ.
Favorite Passages:

“The only image of God is the face of our brother, who is also the brother of God’s Son, of God’s own likeness (2 Cor. 4, 4; Col. 1, 15).  Our human brother now becomes a “sacrament” of God’s hidden presence among us, a mediator between God and man.  Every authentic religious act is directed toward the concreteness of God in our human brother and his world.  There it finds it living fulfillment and its transcendent point of contact.  Could man be taken more seriously than that?  Is anything more anthropocentric than God’s creative love?” – p. 35

“Every genuine human encounter must be inspired by poverty of spirit.  We must forget ourselves in order to let the other person approach us.  We must be able to open up to him, to let his distinctive personality unfold — even though it often frightens or repels us.  We often keep the other person down, and only see what we want to see; thus we never really encounter the mysterious secret of his being,  only ourselves.  Failing to risk the poverty of encounter, we indulge in a new form of self-assertion and pay a price for it: loneliness.  Because we did not risk the poverty of openness (cf. Mt. 10, 39), our lives are not graced with the warm fullness of human existence.  We are left with only a shadow of our real self.” – p. 45

Recommended books: The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Awakened from Within: Meditations on the Christian Life by Frere Roger, The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi by St. Francis Of Assisi and The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day.
Rating:

Book Review: Ambassadors of reconciliation by Ched Myers & Elaine Enns


Author: Ched Myers & Elaine Enns
Title: Ambassadors of reconciliation
Publication Info: Maryknoll, N.Y. : Orbis Books, 2009
ISBN:  9781570758317
Summary/Review:
This beautiful book explores the ideas of forgiveness and restorative justice based on the Gospel and Christian teaching.  As a modern example of the teaching of Christ the authors frequently cite the writings and actions of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights activists of the 1950s & 60s.  Both Christ and King demonstrate how through nonviolent action “peacemaking must first be peace disturbing.”  This is the first of two volumes and I hope to find the time to read the second part.

Recommended books: Bound to Forgive: The Pilgrimage to Reconciliation of a Beirut Hostage by Martin Jenco, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference by David Garrow, and The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Tattoos on the Heart by Gregory Boyle


Author: Gregory Boyle
Title: Tattoos on the Heart
Publication Info: New York : Free Press, 2010.
ISBN:  9781439153024
Summary/Review:

Not really a memoir, but more illustrative vignettes from Fr. Greg’s work with gang members in Los Angeles.  This beautifully written book is both inspiring and heartbreaking.  Inspiring because of the wonderful humanity of the “homies” the comes to its fullest when they are given some love and dignity.  Heartbreaking because so many of the people we come to while reading are cut down by gunfire and die too young.  This is a book I highly recommend.  Learn more about Fr. Greg and his homies at the Homeboy Industries website.

Favorite Passages:

We all just want to be called by the name our mom uses when she’s not pissed off at us. p. 54

Here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it. p. 67

Success and failure, ultimately, have little to do with living the gospel. Jesus just stood with the outcasts until they were welcomed or until he was crucified — whichever came first. p. 172

Recommended books: Respect: An Exploration by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller, Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists by Courtney E. Martin and The Ticket Out: Darryl Strawberry and the Boys of Crenshaw by Michael Sokolive
Rating: *****

Book Review: Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller


Author: Donald Miller
Title: Blue like jazz : nonreligious thoughts on Christian spirituality
Publication Info: Nashville : T. Nelson, c2003.
ISBN: 0785263705

Summary/Review:

It’s hard to know what to make of this book.  At first it seems to be a hipster reflecting on Christian ideas in the secular world.  Then I learn that the author is a lifelong Christian and it feels like a bait-and-switch and that this is going to be a sneaky evangelical tract.  Miller fortunately is none of these things and is blessedly impossible to put in any box.  Still I find Miller hard to read, I think because he’s so much like me – shy, inconsistent, overwriting and overthinking things.  I’m finally won over by the chapter in which Miller and his friends in a small Christian group at a largely hedonistic college decide to participate in the college’s annual bacchanalian festival.  Miller jokingly suggests setting up a confession booth and the group ends up doing so, but for the purpose of confessing the crimes of Christianity and their own personal failings as Christians to the partying students who come to their both.  Miller is much better than Frank Schaeffer at writing about humility, love, transcendence, and how to lead an authentic Christian life in a secular world.

Favorite Passages:

My most recent faith struggle is not one of intellect.  I don’t really do that anymore.  Sooner or later you just figure out there are some guys who don’t believe in God and they can prove He doesn’t exist, and some guys who do believe in God and they can prove He does exist, and the argument stopped being about God a long time ago and now it’s about who is smarter, and honestly I don’t care.  I don’t believe I will ever walk away from God for intellectual reasons.  Who knows anything anyway?  If I walk away from Him, and please pray that I never do, I will walk away for social reasons, deep emotional reasons, the same reasons that any of us do anything. – p. 103

Rating: ***

Book Review: From the Pews in the Back edited by Kate Dugan and Jennifer Owens


Author: Kate Dugan and Jennifer Owens
Title: From the Pews in the Back
Publication Info:  Collegeville, Minn. : Liturgical Press, c2009.
ISBN: 9780814632581

Summary/Review:

This excellent collection of essays allows young women to focus on their lives and identity in the Catholic faith (Full disclosure: I know Jen Owens from when we both part of the same church community in Boston).  29 women share their stories which are rich and diverse despite many of them coming from similar backgrounds (all but one of the writers are “cradle Catholics”).  They reflect on growing up Catholic, putting their faith into service and social justice, the call to vocation, and the importance of liturgy, the sacraments and Catholic identity.  They also tell how they deal with the conflict of the official Church teachings on things like women’s ordination and sexuality and how they’ve dealt with questions of faith and doubt.  This is a beautiful and powerful work and really left me thirsting for more.

Favorite Passages:

The thing about Catholic school, about growing up Catholic, is that it prioritizes the sacred, the ceremonious, the ability to create something holy out of otherwise profane time.  What we are taught as easily as biology, as matter-of-factly as mathematics, is a sense of wonder, that there is a transcendent and overarching God at play, that love is what propels the universe. – p. 39, Sarah Keller

Ironically, I am almost grateful to a church for inadvertently shaping me into a strong-willed feminist.  By simultaneously encouraging me to use all of my gifts and then barring me, and many other women, from doing so, the church provides exactly the right blend of factors to motivate me to action. – p. 143, Kate Henley Averett.

Recommended books: The Possibilities of Sainthood by Donna Freitas, The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day, and Catholic Does Not Equal the Vatican: A Vision for Progressive Catholicism by Rosemary Radford Ruether.
Rating: ****

Book Review: Catholic Does Not Equal the Vatican by Rosemary Radford Ruether


Author: Rosemary Radford Ruether
Title: Catholic Does Not Equal the Vatican
Publication Info: New York : New Press, c2008
ISBN: 978-1-59558-406-9

Summary/Review:

This short “manifesto-style” book is a call for a more authentic experience of church in the Catholic tradition.  The author  – a scholar, activist, and feminist theologian – compiles a half-dozen essays that tell her life story, explore the experiences of women in Catholicism, critique the inconsistencies of the post-Vatican II papacy, and set forth an alternate vision to the Vatican’s paradigm.  The book is uneven and a lot of the essays could and should be explicated into a longer work, but this book serves well as an introduction to progressive Catholicism.

Recommended books: Faithful Dissenters: Stories of Men and Women Who Loved and Changed the Church by Robert McClory and Why I Am a Catholic by Garry Wills.
Rating: ***

Book Review: Young Children and Spirituality by Barbara Kimes Myers


Author: Barbara Kimes Myers
Title: Young Children and Spirituality
Publication Info: New York : Routledge, 1997.
ISBN: 0415916550

Summary/Review:

This book disappointed me mostly because it was not what I expected – namely a book that would help me as a parent understand my child’s spiritual needs.  This book is more of a psychology and childhood development book.  Kimes Myers has a broad definition of spirituality within the realms of family life, community, school and multicularism.  It’s an interesting book, but not being in the author’s intended audience I didn’t find it easy to comprehend or apply to real life.

Rating: **

Book Review: Quest for the Living God by Elizabeth A. Johnson


Elizabeth A. Johnson, C.S.J. explores the many ideas of God that have emerged in the past century in Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God (2007).  The book functions as a quick summary of these many “new” theologies of God – albeit rooted in ancient tradition and faithful to scripture. They include:

  • the modern, secular world with a focus on Karl Rahner
  • the suffering of the Holocaust and three post-war German theologians: Jurgen Moltmann, Dorothee Soelle, and Johann Baptist Metz.
  • liberation theology in the the post-colonial, still exploited developing world in which Oscar Romero is a major figure.
  • women and the feminine divine
  • the African American church that sings of freedom although rooted in slavery and segregation
  • the God of fiesta and la lucha in the Latin American church
  • religious pluralism
  • the natural world and science
  • the Trinity

Each chapter includes a selection of recommended reading on the theology and prominent thinkers in that area.  Johnson also makes some interesting, incisive statements about the idolatry of some of the current accepted practices of the Church (such as the concept of God as an old, bearded white man). Johnson’s writing is energetic and positive which adds to its inspirational quality.

Favorite Passages

First off, a person can no longer be a Christian out of social convention or inherited custom.  To be a Christian now requires a personal decision, the kind of decision that brings about a change of heart and sustains long-term commitment.  Not cultural Christianity but a diaspora church, scattered among unbelievers and believers of various stripes, becomes the setting for this free act of faith.  Furthermore, when a person does come to engage belief in a personal way society makes this difficult to do…. When, nevertheless persons do make a free act of faith, the factors characteristic of the modern world impart a distinctive stamp to their spiritual experience.  This is not surprising, since the path to God always winds through the historical circumstances of peoples’ times and places. Inhabiting a secular, pluralistic culture, breathing its atmosphere and conducting their daily lives according to its pragmatic tenets, Christians today have absorbed the concrete pattern of modernity into their very soul. – p. 29

Mystical and practical, Christian life then becomes a passion for God that encompasses the suffering, the passion, of others, committing people to resistance against injustice for the living in hope of universal justice even for the dead.  The mystery of iniquity is not thereby resolved.  Theological reasoning remains unreconciled to the surd of evil.  It keeps on judging: this should not be.  But God is love and has promised to prove it.  The dangerous memory of the crucified and risen Jesus in solidarity with all the dead keeps the question open while laying down a hopeful, compassionate path for mature discipleship.  Thus has Metz proposed that we speak of God with our face rather than our back turned to the terrible event of Auschwitz. – p. 67

A simple thought experiment may bring home he depth of this biblical revelation about the nature of God.  Is there a single text where in vigorous “thus says the Lord” fashion people are counseled to oppress the poor, to rob from the widow, to put on a big show of sacrifice at the expense of doing justice?  Is there a text where God delights in seeing people — or any creatures — in agony?  Suffering happens; indeed some texts interpret war and exile as divine punishment for the sin of the people as a whole, sin that includes precisely the acts of oppressing the poor.  But even here, God’s anger lasts for a moment, divine mercy for ten thousand years.  Taken from start to finish, as a whole, the Bible reveals God as compassionate lover of justice, on the side of the oppressed to the point where “those who oppress the poor insult their Maker” (Prov 14:31). – p. 76

Far from being silly or faddish, the theological approach women are pioneering goes forward with the conviction that only if God is named in this more complete way, only if the full reality of historical women of all races and classes enters into our symbol of the divine, only then will the idolatrous fixation on one image of God be broken, will women be empowered at their deepest core, and will religious and civic communities be converted toward healing justice in the concrete.  Along the way, every female naming of the Holy produces one more fragment of the truth of the mystery of divine Sophia’s gracious hospitality toward all human beings and the earth. – p. 110

For many moons of centuries, theology dismissed other religions as pagan inventions or condescended to them as deficient ways people had of stumbling toward the divine.  Actual dialogic encounter with other religions leads to a different view.  Assuming that the real presence of grace and truth can only have a diving origin, the religions can be sen as God’s handiwork.  In them we catch a first glimpse of the overflowing generosity of the God who has left no people abandoned but has bestowed divine love on every culture.  This is the grace of our age: encountering multiple religious tradtions widens the horizon wherein we catch sight of God’s loving plenitude.  Thus we are enabled to approach the mystery every more deeply. – p. 163

Author : Johnson, Elizabeth A., 1941-
Title : Quest for the living God : mapping frontiers in the theology of God / Elizabeth A. Johnson.
Published : New York : Continuum, 2007.
Description : xiii, 234 p. ; 24 cm.
Contents : Ancient story, new chapter — Gracious mystery, ever greater, ever nearer — The crucified God of compassion — Liberating God of life — God acting womanish — God who breaks chains — Accompanying God of fiesta — Generous God of the religions — Creator spirit in the evolving world — Trinity : the living God of love.
Notes : Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN : 9780826417701 (hardcover : alk. paper)
0826417701 (hardcover : alk. paper)

Book Review: Consistently Opposing Killing edited by Rachel M. McNair and Stephen Zunes


Consistently Opposing Killing (2008) edited by Rachel M. McNair and Stephen Zunes collects together essays and interviews focused on the Consistent Life Ethic.  This is a movement that opposes killing in any form: abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, assisted suicide, and unjust as war as well as promoting economic justice to end poverty, opposing racism, and seeking peaceful solutions to conflict. In addition to the editors, contributors include Mary Meehan, Michael Nagler, and Vasu Murti ,   Many of the authors refer to the Consistent Life Ethic as the “seamless garment,” a term originating with Cardinal Joseph Bernadin whose work is cited often by the contributor but not included in this book.  Bernadin’s lectures A Consistent Ethic of Life (1983, pdf) and A Consistent Ethic of Life: Continuing the Dialogue (1984) can be read online.

This book really hits home with me. When I was younger and developing my political and moral identity I was drawn to liberalism since it focused on standing up for the underdogs and the defenseless and opposing the things that damage and destroy life: civil rights, civil liberties, social safety nets, health care, opposing poverty, rehabilitating prisoners instead of executing them, opposing unnecessary war and nuclear proliferation, and seeking alternatives to violence. You can imagine my surprise that opposing abortion was not a liberal cause. I’ve become something of a political pariah in that liberal people who share many similar views to my own but support of legal abortion seems to be the one non-negotiable issue for acceptance in their ranks. On the other hand I’ve little political common ground with conservatives and often find their rhetoric and strategies for opposing abortion repellent. The authors in this book share similar experiences. Conservatives call them a bunch of peaceniks and commies. Liberals call them misogynist, racist theocrats.

These essays trace the history of the consistent life ethic (did you know that the link of feminism and pro-choice politics is a relatively development) as well as providing studies on Americans views on life issues.  Abortion is a central theme of many essays where it’s linked or compared with poverty, racism, the Israel/Palestine conflict and animal rights.  The better essays come toward the end of the books where the contributors propose consistent solutions with the essays by Meehan, McNair and Zunes being particularly moving.

One quibble I have with this book is the oft-referenced idea of the slippery slope.  Many contributors contend that those who support a legal right to abortion are likely to also support infanticide and euthanasia of the disabled and elderly.  This just doesn’t jibe with pro-choice people I know and public figures who are active and compassionate supporters of the needs of children, the disabled, and the elderly.

This book is one that should be read by anyone regardless of their political bent.  I’m sure there’s stuff in here that anyone will disagree with and will make them angry, but most of all what I find in this book is hope.  Hope that people can go beyond the battle lines of the so-called “culture war” and find common ground and solutions that will bring an end to the killing and degradation of human life.

Favorite Passages

“Many people with serious moral qualms about abortion but not wanting to unwittingly promote a reactionary social agenda therefore remain silent.  This is also a poor strategy.  The timidity of many progressives with antiabortion sentiments to speak out has led to much of the movement becoming dominated by right-wing opportunists who oppose abortion for the wrong reasons,” p. 35 – from “Israel/Palestine and Abortion” by Stephen Zunes.

“Even unconscious people, who do not have anything on that list, offer us an extremely valuable service.  As long as their lives are protected, people seen as most on the margins, the the rest of us are safe.  Those on the edge of the social fabric guard it and keep it from unraveling.  The first step on the slippery slope is not taken so there is no slipper slope,” p. 61 – from “When Bigotry Turns Disabilities Deadly.”

“The thread of respect for life, woven among these issues, is not visible in the public forum, where political ideologies dominate the analysis.  Traditional liberals favor goverment intervention to “support life” by improving the opportuinities available to the poorest members of society, but oppose legal limits on issues deemed to be matters of private morality.  Traditional conservatives attempt to reduce government intervention in the economy, but promote legal restraints to protect vulnerable human life.  Each perspective both shares and disuptes some of the policy mandates that flow from the consistent ethic of life,” p. 75 – from “Does the Seamless Garment Fit?” by Edith Bogue.

“Most people, myself included, when you look at a complicated problem start off by seeing where your friends are.  Because you trust them.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  Your friends are honorable and intelligent people, and you consult them to see what they believe in.  But that turns into a camp or culture of the Right or a camp and culture of the Left, nor based on real thinking or real dialog — just a desire to move with your particular herd.  Us against them, which arouse the most pleasurable, pervasive, and vile passions,” p. 107 – from “Activists Reminisce,” a quote from Juli Loesch Wiley.

Relevant Links:

Book Review: Googling God by Mike Hayes


I’m a fan of Mike Hayes from the BustedHaloCast so I read his book Googling God: The Religious Landscape of People in their 20s and 30s (2007). This thin volume is basically a guide for ministers to young adults in the Catholic Church, although I read it more as a young adult looking for ministry. Like libraries, the Church is good at ministering to children, teens, parents, and the elderly, but skip right over the (unmarried and childless) people in their 20’s and 30’s.

Hayes’ first lesson is the difference between people in their 20’s (the Millenials) and their 30’s (Generation X). Generation X tend to more progressive in their worship and seek community at their churches. The Millenials look more for contemplative worship and are more orthodox in their beliefs (or at least seek hard and fast answers to faith questions). Hayes conducts interviews with 6 people of each generation to learn about the typical faith stories of young adults today. I appreciate Hayes honesty when he disagrees with the opinions of the young adults he interviews, but finds value and importance in their beliefs all the same.

In the later chapters Hayes offers useful resources for ministering to Young Adults. This includes a critique of World Youth Day (the Pope’s biennial celebration with Catholic teens and young adults), a checklist for starting a young adult ministry at one’s church, and helpful tips for using technology and new media to attract and retain young adults. This is a very useful resources for those who want to learn about this important ministry written in a warm, readable style. Who knows? Maybe as I grow too old to be a young adult, I may be called to mentor the next generation.

Book Review: The Misunderstood Jew by Amy-Jill Levine


The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus (2006) by Amy-Jill Levine is like Jesus Before Christianity in that it puts Jesus in a historical context of his time.  Levine is a Jewish scholar with a lifelong interest in Jesus and Christianity.  Her simple thesis for this book is that Jesus was a good Jewish person who taught Jewish people in a Jewish land.  Not a hard concept, but a great amount of Christian scholarship and theology attempts to deemphasize Jesus’ Jewishness whether intentionally or not.

Levine is particularly concerned with anti-Judiasm that arises from certain interpretations of the Gospels and epistles.  This particularly happens when in attempt to set aside Jesus as unique, the Jewish people and/or leaders of his time are depicted as monolithic, obsessively rule-following, unconcerned with the poor and outcast, and particularly oppressive to women.  The danger is that such polar views create dangerous stereotypes of Judaism in the 1st century and today.

This is an excellent work, and I learned a lot about Judaism and Christianity.  It also helps understand and emphasize Jesus and his teachings in new and exciting ways.