Posted by: Dan | July 1, 2006

June Books

Well, this last month was a pretty good one for reading. Seeing as I have a few looming papers due in July, I suspect that I won’t get much book reading done over the next few weeks. Regardless, here are my woefully inadequate June book “reviews” (if you can even call them that).

1. Mysterium Paschale: The Mystery of Easter by Hans Urs von Balthasar. I always find von Balthasar to be a little mind-blowing and this book that focuses on Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday is certainly a seminal work on the Easter-event. I find von Balthasar’s reflections on Holy Saturday and Christ’s identification with those in hell to be especially intriguing (von Balthasar has been especially influenced by von Speyr in this regard). Although this book is regularly mentioned as a hugely influential book within theological reflections on Easter, I have a nagging suspicion that the implications of this book for daily Christian living have largely been neglected (I am currently working on a piece called “Becoming the Father through a Spirit-Empowered Cruciformity: Prolegomena to a Narrative Spirituality of Mission” where I begin to explore some of the quite radical implications of von Balthasar’s reflections).

2. Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder by Richard A. Horsley. It is exciting reading Horsley. He has a good understanding of the culture of Jesus’ day and the culture of our day, and so when he discuses the implications Jesus’ ministry might have for us, the results are quite revolutionary and explosive. Because I believe that Christianity exists as a counter-culture to all our human cultures and a counter-polis to all our human states, I think Horsley is a voice that deserves a wide audience. However, the gross reductionism within Horsley’s work always disappoints me. He completely disregards a large amount of the New Testament and chooses to focus almost solely upon Mark and Q. Furthermore, Horsley is so concerned to make Jesus a part of an egalitarian grass-roots socio-political revolutionary movement that he throws out large parts of Jesus’ message, ministry and identity. And it’s really quite too bad. If Horsley had a fuller view of Scripture and of Jesus, his position would actually be strengthened, not weakened.

3. Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church by James K. A. Smith. This is an excellent, exciting, and very readable little book that engages with the major theses of France’s “unholy trinity” — Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault. Smith argues that, properly understood, the arguments of these postmodern philosophers are actually quite beneficial to contemporary Christianity. Thus, he argues that Derrida’s thesis that “there is nothing outside the text” helps the Church to recover the centrality of Scripture, and the role the faith community plays in hermeneutics. From Lyotard’s thesis that postmodernity is “incredulity toward metanarratives,” Smith argues that the Church recovers both the narrative character and the confessional character of Christian faith; and from Foucault’s thesis that “power is knowledge” the Church realises the cultural power of formation and discipline and therefore also realises the necessity of enacting counter-formation and counter-discipline. Smith also concludes this book with an excellent critique of the Emergent movement in light of the Radical Orthodoxy movement. Of the books I read this month, this one was probably the most exciting.

4. In Good Company: The Church as Polis by Stanley Hauerwas. This is a collection of addresses and articles written by Hauerwas in the early 1990s. It is divided into three parts: reflections on being in Protestant (including, surprise, Anabaptist) company, reflections on being in Catholic company, and reflections on ecclesial ethics. I always enjoy reading Hauerwas, and there were a few things he said in these essays that really caught my eye but, for the most part, he has already said everything in this book better elsewhere. Of course, there is not necessarily anything wrong with a Christian theologian repeating himself (as Hauerwas is quick to point out). If we are to be a community of discipline, and a community formed by the Christian story, and the Christian liturgy, then repetition must be seen as valuable, and even essential.

5. finding naasicaa: letters of hope in an age of anxiety by Charles R. Ringma. I had the privilege of taking a few courses with Charles before he retired from teaching at my school, and so I was delighted to see that he had written another book (this one). Charles is something of a Protestant Jesuit — a Protestant contemplative in action. He is a scholar (having taught in Australia, the Phillipines, and Canada), he is an activist (having founded intentional Christian communities in various ghettos in Queensland, Manilla, and Vancouver), and he is an incredibly prayerful man as well. This book is a gentle, pastoral, dialectical reflection on the various threads of Christian life, and thought, given the context we find ourselves in today. It is written as a series of letters from Charles to his 19 year old granddaughter, Naasicaa.

6. The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience by Ronald J. Sider. In this book, Sider, a long-time Christian social activist, well-known for his book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, tries to do for the Evangelical conscience, what Mark Noll did for the Evangelical mind. Unfortunately, Sider’s book doesn’t come close to the quality of Noll’s writing, nor does it come close to the writings of other Christians who have sought to call the Church back to journeying intimately with the poor and the marginalised. The only people who might find this book helpful are those who are deeply immersed in North American Conservative Evangelicalism. As far as I’m concerned Jim Wallis’ book The Call to Conversion is far more successful in addressing the things Sider wants to address.

7. We Say No: Chronicles 1963-1991 by Eduardo Galeano. Galeano is a journalist from Uruguay who writes stories that are so true that the are dangerously subversive to Latin American political powers and the Western nations and corporations that fund and undergird those powers. Born in 1940, he lived in exile (i.e. fled for his life) from 1973-1984 before returning to Uruguay. This collection of essays has everything from encounters with Pele, el Che, General Peron, and the last emperor of China, to reflections on history from the side of the poor and the indigenous people of Latin America, to stories about diamond mining camps in Venezuala, ghettos in Rio de Janeiro, smuggling in Bolivia, and much more. Galeano does for journalism what Gutierrez (and others) did (and do) for theology.

8. Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. This is a collection of letters, essays, and speeches given by Vonnegut throughout the 1970s. I enjoy Vonnegut’s voice a great deal, and in a way, in both his writings on technology and religion, I feel he anticipated certain postmodern philosophers and their approach to ethics. Thus, for example, Vonnegut is for more concerned with civility than he is with love. There is always a strange blend of humour and sorrow, resistance and resignation, in Vonnegut and I think that’s a large part of the reason why I keep going back to him.

9. The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon. Well, after arguing with some literary friends, I decided to try Pynchon one more time. This book was incomparably better than Gravity’s Rainbow, but that’s not saying much. It was much more coherent, and much less sexual. Of course, it was still very “postmodern”: full of paranoia, lacking resolution, and highlighting the supposed arbitrariness of all things. Speaking of books full of paranoia, I really think Umberto Eco does it better than Pynchon — although I might feel that way since Eco is less radical in his approach to postmodern literature, so that’s probably just my own biases coming through. All in all, this book was mostly ho-hum. Books that don’t say much throughout, and that don’t come to any sort of resolution, don’t really interest me all that much, regardless of how well they are written.

10. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. This is a great, poignant, and heart-breaking without being sentimental, story. Plath writes a largely autobiographical piece about a young woman who spirals down into mental illness and depression. There are suicide attempts, institutionalisation, and shock-therapy present in the novel — because those things were present in Plath’s own life. As a insider to those things, Plath helps the reader to share the helplessness, confusion, and lostness of her protagonist. Sadly, this is Plath’s only major novel — she ended up taking her own life one month after this novel was published. She was 31 years old and only gained significant fame (mostly for her poems) posthumously.

11. The Bluest Eyes by Toni Morrison. Morrison’s first novel, this book is about a poor black girl with a longing for love (expressed in her ongoing wish to have blue eyes) that leads her to tragedy. Like Morrison’s other books, there is a brutal honesty here, but there is also mystery, magic, and even wonder and strength found in the most unlikely of places.

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