Posted by: Dan | September 1, 2006

August Books

Well, since I had no classes during August I was free to read a little more haphazardly. I took the opportunity to finish up a few books I had started awhile ago, read a few biographies, dive into some longer fiction, and read a few things that came completely out of left field. August was a good month. Alas, back to class and on to the thesis proposal (i.e. goodbye all extraneous reading). Anyway, here are August’s books:

1. Church Dogmatics I.1: The Doctrine of the Word of God by Karl Barth.
Well, I’ve finally begun to dive into Barth’s Dogmatics. Long overdue, I know, but this is a good time for it as I think I’m finally ready — I’m not afraid! This volume deals with a lot of Barth’s introductory material — dogmatics as science, the role dogmatics plays within the Church, the material appropriate to dogmatics, the nature of faith, the interplay of revelation, scripture, proclamation, dogmatics, and so on. As he explores these themes, Barth consistently critiques Roman Catholic and Liberal Protestant theologies in order to advocate for an “evangelical” theology. Throughout, Barth consistently emphasizes the Lordship of God and also the “triunity” of the Father, Son, and Spirit. Within this volume Barth also spends a good deal of time relating the spoken word (preaching) and the written word (Scripture) to the Word of God. Preaching and Scripture both remain human words and, therefore, only exist as witnesses to the true Word of God — Jesus. It is only through the working of the Spirit that Scripture or proclamation become true witnesses to the Word in the here and now of our daily lives. There is much more that could be said about this book but I shall move on. I am excited to continue to journey deeper into Barth’s thinking and writing as he explores the nature and content of the Church’s proclamation.

2. We Drink From Our own Wells: The Spiritual Journey of a People by Gustavo Gutierrez.
This book is an explanation of a Latin American “spirituality” rooted in the experience of the poor and the oppressed. The term “spirituality” is defined by Gutierrez as the path one travels as one follows Jesus. Therefore, there are many different legitimate Christian spiritualities because following Jesus looks different in different contexts. Furthermore, this emphasis upon following Jesus also leads Gutierrez to assert that all theology is spiritual theology because “our spirituality is our methodology.” This furthers the emphasis that Gutierrez and other liberation theologians place upon theology as second order reflection based upon primary ecclesial praxis. We Drink From Our own Wells is divided into three parts. The first section describes the Latin American experience from a spiritual (as opposed to strictly social or political) perspective. The second section maps out key components of all Christian spiritualities (encounter with Jesus, life in the Spirit, journeying towards the Father). The third section brings together the first two sections and develops themes within a Latin American spirituality. These are conversion to solidarity, efficacious gratuitousness, joyful victory over suffering, spiritual childhood and simplicity, and community out of solitude. I enjoy Gutierrez, but I can’t say that there was too much within this book that I have not already encountered in his other writings, or the writings of other liberation theologians. Still, it was a pleasant refresher.

3. Philosophical Investigations by Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Given my ongoing engagement with “postliberal” theologians, it was only a matter of time before I got to reading Wittgenstein (can one study Lindbeck or Hauerwas and not read Wittgenstein?). Although published posthumously, this is Wittgenstein’s most famous work and the one which (I believe) brought the term “language game” into public discourse. Wittgenstein uses the term “language game” to describe how meaning/truth is applied to any given word. He argues that all meaning is determined by the contextual use of a word as that use is dictated by the rules (i.e. grammar) set by a particular community. It should be mentioned that this book was published posthumously because Wittgenstein delayed publication because he was unhappy with the disjointed structure of the book — although he was unable to imagine the book being arranged in any other way. This means that the argument often jumps all over the place as Wittgenstein records the thought process as it occurs to him. Indeed, following Wittgenstein’s earlier writings, it seems that the Investigations is a heuristic device; the reader learns by thinking through, and experiencing, the thoughts as they occur to Wittgenstein. I hope to return to this book in the future, as I develop my thoughts on Barth and Wittgenstein.

4. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Reading Wittgenstein in reverse order, I moved from the Investigations to the Tractatus, the first and only book Wittgenstein actually published during his lifetime (and a book that Wittgenstein later critiques in some significant ways). This book is very short, very concise, and very dense (indeed, I am currently reading some secondary lit to help me to understand both the Tractatus and the Investigations). However, it seems to me that there are two major things that Wittgenstein does within this book. First of all, he establishes a pictorial model of language. Language that is meaningful provides us with a picture of reality. It does this by having its components relate to each other in the same way that the components of reality relate to each other. Therefore, the individual words do not have any one meaning, what is meaningful is the contingent relation of words to other words (compare for example these three uses of the word “is”: “God is”; “John is skinny”; “two plus two is four”) and this relationship only has any truth-value when it can be said to correspond to the relationship of reality’s contingent components. Therefore, this leads to Wittgenstein’s second major point. Because language is only meaningful when it is descriptive, philosophy, and language itself, must recognize its limitations and refuse to speak about that which is beyond its limits. When language is understood pictorially most philosophical statements (statements that attempt to do with concepts what can only be done with particular objects) are revealed as nonsensical — they do not have any truth-value because they do not say anything at all. Thus, according to Wittgenstein, to say “I love you” makes as much sense as saying “all twos are colour” — most philosophy is simply gobbledygook and we must admit that such nonsense is all that we can say about the “deep” issues of life. I’ll have more to say about this later this month.

5. The Fragile Absolute — or, why is the Christian legacy worth fighting for? by Slavoj Zizek.
I picked this book up on a whim while browsing a bookstore because Zizek seemed to be coming up more regularly in some of my other readings and because I thought the title was interesting. A Serbian psychoanalyst and social theorist, I have since discovered that Zizek is known for having a rambling style of writing that is notoriously difficult to follow. Couple that with Zizek’s reliance on Jacques Lacan (with whom I am barely familiar) and Sigmund Freud (with whom I am only generally familiar) and this book was a pretty tough read for me — I just wasn’t familiar enough with a lot of the terms and concepts Zizek takes for granted and so I had to constantly turn to other sources in order to understand what was being said (this appeal to other sources also included looking up various pieces of art and watching a couple of movies so that I could understand other sections of the text). However, the additional work was mostly worthwhile. Zizek writes as a Marxist and as an atheist but his central thesis is that Marxists, instead of attacking Christianity, should be allying themselves with Christianity in order to counter the spiritual neopaganism of Capitalism. As he wades into this social conflict, Zizek upholds (his understanding of) the Pauline concept of agape as the proper radical means of engagement. Furthermore, he upholds the New Testament models of community as the desired goal. While the neopaganism of free-market democracies maintains the order of the universe through justice understood as violent punishment, Zizek argues that Christianity liberates people by upsetting all the pagan balances and by elevating the poor as it grants all people access to the Absolute — God. It is this that allows Christianity to then create communities of people who are truly treated equally, over against the charade of equality that dominates today. Pretty interesting stuff, especially coming from an atheist and a Marxist! What I find particularly intriguing about reading Zizek is that he reverses the Christian-Marxist trend found within some liberation theologies. While liberation theologians start with Christianity and then use some elements of Marxism as tools along the way, Zizek begins with Marxism and ends up using Christianity as a tool along the way.

6. The Future of an Illusion by Sigmund Freud.
After reading Zizek, I thought I should get around to reading some Freud first hand — especially since he is referenced by so many people (not for his particular theories per se, but for the role he played in shaping contemporary culture). I was actually quite surprised by how easy and pleasurable it is to read Freud. He writes very well and very clearly (unlike many who have gone on to write about Freud). Within this book, he beginss to look at the role religion plays within the development of the human person and the development of culture (these thoughts are more fully formed in his later work, Civilization and Its Discontents). Although he somewhat explores the issue of the birth of religion in Totem and Taboo, Freud largely focused on the notion of God as “Father” within that earlier work. Within this book, Freud explores religion as an “illusion” (by using this term Freud does not mean that religion is fictional, he simply means that it is motivated by wish fulfillment and, therefore, cannot necessarily be related to reality in one way or another — aside: this leads quite naturally into Wittgenstein’s discussion of religious statements as nonsensical statements… although Wittgenstein would see much of Freud’s statements as nonsensical as well). In the end, Freud concludes that religion may have served its purpose in the development of humanity and now, as humanity comes of age, science and reasons must operate as the foundations of culture. However, Freud is careful to note that science is quite limited in what she can offer us. Science cannot become another religion, and we must be content with the lack of answers that result in relation to many of life’s big questions. As Freud concludes, “our science is no illusion. But an illusion it would be to suppose that what science cannot give us we can get elsewhere” (aside: it is interesting to note once again that this parallels the conclusion of the Tractatus).

7. Race Against Time: Searching for Hope in AIDS-Ravaged Africa by Stephen Lewis.
This book, a copy of the CBC Massey Lectures that Lewis delivered in 2005, is Lewis’ report on the UN’s Millennium Development Goals as they relate to his experiences as the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. Simply put, Lewis’ report is devastating as he systematically shows why the goals will not be met — not for a lack of resources but for a lack of compassion. The result will be the loss of millions of lives — including the lives of many people that Lewis knows, or did know, personally. The authors passion, his grief, frustration, and anger, fill these lectures and he is a talented orator (he actually moved me to tears when I watched a clip of the lectures on a TV report). Particularly damning is Lewis’ critique of the International Financial Institutions (especially the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund) although his critique of some sovereign States (especially the USA, although the other G8 nations, including Canada, are never far behind) is almost equally harsh. And rightly so. Furthermore, Lewis doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to criticizing the UN although he speaks as a person committed to the UN. Indeed, he speaks out precisely because of this commitment, for he believes a critique-from-within is necessary. Let me quote just one passage from the conclusion of Lewis’ final lecture. I watched Lewis deliver this passage. His voice was breaking and the frustration, rage, and grief were visible all over his face and body as he said:

In 2005, the world will pass the trillion dollar mark in the expenditure, annually, on arms. We’re fighting for $50 billion annually for foreign aid for Africa: the military total outstrips human need 20 to 1. Can someone please explain to me our contemporary balance of values?

8. The Junkie Priest: Father Daniel Egan, S.A. by John D. Harris.
This is the biography of a Roman Catholic Priest who was affectionately known as the “Junkie Priest” because of his work with female addicts and prostitutes in New York during the 1950s and ’60s. Father Egan played a significant role in helping hospitals to treat addicts just as they treat other patients, and played a role in developing halfway houses and treatment centres — something that was not even on the radar at the time. He also played a prominent role in NA (Narcotics Anonymous, a 12 step program based upon the AA model) when it was birthed. The Junkie Priest sounds like an inspiring and wonderful example of what a priest can be… unfortunately this book is written in a melodramatic shock-journalism, almost Harlequin-ish, tone that detracts from the subject matter (although it did make me laugh more than once).

9. The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe by Sarah Churchwell.
I have always been struck by the legacy of Marilyn Monroe and have wondered about the implication her story might have for the formation of a contemporary ethical theological aesthetic. Churchwell’s biography does an excellent job of examining the other biographies of Monroe and the ways in which her person and her legacy have been co-opted by various (and competing!) ideologies. Thus, we have Marilyn the embodiment of natural pleasurable sex, Marilyn the objectification of Norma Jeane, Marilyn the victim, Marilyn the feminist, Marilyn the suicide, Marilyn the martyr, and so on and so forth. Of course, I can’t help but think about how Monroe’s legacy parallels Jesus’ legacy. Both have had many (and often contradictory) biographies written about them, both have been studied as split personalities (the “fictional” Marilyn Monroe vs. the “actual” Norma Jeane; and the “fictional” Christ of faith vs. the “actual” Jesus of history) and both died shocking, controversial deaths while they were still in the prime of life. It would be interesting to play around a little more with this idea. This book was a welcome tangent from the more academic realms of theology, philosophy, and psychology.

10. Demons/The Possessed by Fyodor Dostoevsky.
This is perhaps the most tragic of Dostoevsky’s great novels. While redemption plays a large role in both Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov it is notably absent here — and although it is also absent in The Idiot (perhaps my favourite Dostoevsky novel) the tragedy in Demons occurs on a much larger scale. Demons is Dostoevsky’s read on the changing socio-political climate within the Russia of his day. He draws his title from the episode in Luke’s Gospel when Jesus drives demons out of a possessed man and into a herd of pigs who then stampede into a lake. In Dostoevsky’s novel, the possessed man is Russia and the central characters within the narrative are the herd of pigs. The climactic political murder and some of the central characters are based upon actual events and real people that Dostoevsky read about in the paper. I greatly enjoyed this book. Dostoevsky is my favourite author of fiction and, although this book not quite up to the same level of quality as The Brothers Karamazov or The Idiot, it is still well worth reading.

11. Silence by Shusako Endo.
This book has been on my to-read list for a number of years and so I was glad to stumble onto in the bookstore at my school. It is based upon the true story of Portuguese missionaries who continued to work within Japan in the 17th century, even after the Jesuits had been expelled and Christianity was being violently persecuted. Silence bases its narrative upon the story of one of those missionaries who, unlike most of those who had been tortured before him, apostatized and renounced his faith. The motif of God’s silence in the face of suffering is one that runs through the entire book, and it is striking what God finally says when he breaks his silence and speaks at the climactic moment of the story. This book had me thinking for some time after I had finished reading it — and that’s always a good thing.


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