Posted by: Dan | July 13, 2007

June Books (finally)

First of all, my apologies to Stephen for taking so long in answering the questions he asked me in his “interview meme.” I hope to get through the last few questions in the next few days. However, there has been a lot going on in my life these days and so the ol’ blog has been rather neglected.

So it goes.

Anyway, here are my June books. I thought most of my books for the next little while would relate to my thesis but my thesis reading isn’t leading me to much cover-to-cover reading these days. Apart from one book, these readings were mostly chosen for personal reasons.

1. Rome in the Bible and the Early Church edited by Peter Oakes.

This interesting little book contains six essays exploring the relationship between the early Church and Rome (Rome here is variously understood as empire, culture, and city). Several of these essays are little gems and I would recommend the book to any who are interested in this topic.

The first essay, by Steve Walton, explores Luke’s perspective on Rome as an empire. After exploring various, conflicting proposals about Luke’s perspective, Walton offers his own reading of Luke-Acts and draws three major conclusions: first, Luke writes purposively, not merely descriptively, about Rome; second, Luke offers a variety of perspectives on Christian relations with the empire; and third, Luke emphasises the supremacy of Jesus over Caesar. Consequently, Walton argues that Luke agrees with both “Romans 13 and Revelation 13” in various political contexts.

In the second essay, Conrad Gempf explores the ending of the book of Acts, and Paul’s arrival in Rome. Rather than arguing that Luke includes this chapter in order to show Paul as the “pioneer of Roman evangelism,” Gempf argues that Christians are already clearly present in Rome. Therefore, he concludes that Luke’s purpose in this passage is about the complex relationship that exists between Paul and the Jews. Gempf argues that this chapter shows initial connection and accommodation but ends in disconnect and rejection. What Gempf finds most significant is the observation that, before the Jews reject Christianity, they first initially concede that Christianity is a sect of Judaism. Therefore, Luke wants to highlight that, although Christians work among the Gentiles, they are not outside Judaism. Hence, any dispute between Christians and Jews must be viewed as an internal dispute.

In the third essay, Bruce Winter explores Roman culture. By examining Ro 12-15 as it relates to Roman law and society, Winter argues that Paul is “a radical critic of the prevailing culture of privilege.” Indeed, Paul argues that Christians should resist behaving according to the three prevalent patterns for social relationships — patron-client relations, relations between (unequal) friends, and relations in associations — and, instead, extends family language in order to describe relationships within the Christian community. Thus, Paul desires that the Roman Christians not be conformed to “the spirit of our age” (which is properly understood as the Golden Age established by Augustus) but should “put on the Lord Jesus” and make no room for the flesh to indulge in activities endorsed by Roman society.

In the fourth essay, Andrew Clarke argues that the greetings found in Ro 16 show how each dimension of the inclusiveness found in Gal 3.28 — ethnic (Jew/Gentile), social (slave/free), gender (fe/male) — is exemplified in Paul’s communities. Thus, Paul’s “theology of inclusion is mirrored closely in his practice.”

In the fifth essay, Peter Oakes explores the question of Roman authority and, in a thematic exploration of Philippians, he argues that God is sovereign over Roman authorities, and that Christ is continually presented in a way that relativises the emperor. Central to Oakes’ argument is the observation that both Paul — through the chains of his imprisonment — and the Philippians — through economic hardships, which would be the most prevalent form of hardship experienced by the early Christians — were suffering under the Roman authorities because of their faith. However, because Jesus, and not Caesar, is ultimately the Lord of all, the universe has been “remapped,” and Christians are encouraged to embrace their sufferings as badges of honour rather than marks of shame. As Oakes says, “Christ’s imperative for unity outweigh society’s imperatives of cautious status preservation.” Ultimately, the Christians are citizens of heaven, not Rome, and so they have a stronger saviour than that of Rome, and can stand firm because they are assured of Christ’s sovereignty.

Finally, in the sixth essay, Andrew Gregory explores the difficulties around dating 1 Clement and The Shepherd of Hermas and argues that, rather than seeing them in relation to the city of Rome specifically, they should be seen in terms of Roman culture more widely. This is probably the most technical and specialised essay and unless you are directly exploring 1 Clement or the Shepherd you can safely skip it.

2. The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability by Nancy L. Eiesland.

After stumbling onto this article (http://www.biblesociety.org.uk/exploratory/articles/eiesland04.pdf) I hastened out to buy Eiesland’s book. Given the richness of liberation theology and the many streams that have sprung out of it, I was intrigued to explore one of the ways in which liberation theology has been utilised by persons with disabilities within the Church.

Broken into six chapters, Eiesland begins with methodological questions (chpt 1) before opening the book proper with the testimony of two people with disabilities (chpt 2). She then traces both the history of the civil rights movement in America as it has related to persons with disabilities (chpt 3) and the history of the Church’s (in particular, the Lutheran Church of America) practice of injustice towards persons with disabilities (chpt 4). Finally, she develops a liberating Christology and some of its implications (chpt 5), and she also explores the practice of a sacramental theology — in relation to the Eucharist — that holds great(er) significance for persons with disabilities, and those who journey with them (chpt 6). I found chapters 1, 5, & 6, to be the most intriguing (in part because I was already fairly familiar with much of the content found in chapters 2-4).

In chapter one, in her exploration of methodology, Eiesland argues that the measure of the usefulness of a practical theological method is accessibility. In particular, she argues that (a) persons with disabilities must gain access to the social-symbolic life of the church and (b) the church must gain access to the social-symbolic lives of people with disabilities. Hence, Eiesland argues that such access recognises two agendas: (1) the primary agenda of enabling people with disabilities to participate fully in the life of the church — which probably requires a deconstruction of the contemporary notion of embodiment — and (2) the church must gain access to the social-symbolic life of persons with disabilities. In this section Eiesland also explores who “people with disabilities” are and concludes that “people with disabilities are distinguished not because of our shared physical, psychological, or emotional traits, but because ‘temporarily able-bodied’ persons single us out for differential treatment.”

Skipping over the biographical and historical material in chapters 2-4 (which really do deserve to be read, especially if one does not have a great deal of familiarity with this topic), we come to chapter five, wherein Eiesland develops her Christology of a “disabled God.” Motivated by an “epiphany” (a term Eiesland does not take lightly) wherein she saw God “in a sip-puff wheelchair” (a “sip-puff wheelchair” is a chair used by quadriplegics that enables them to maneuver by blowing or sucking on a straw-like device). This vision is what motivated her to explore a liberatory theology of disability that is both political and symbolic. A focus on the symbolic is crucial to the political process since symbols both reproduce and transform social status. Consequently, in her theology, Eiesland develops a new image of wholeness premised upon the symbol of Jesus as the disabled God who, even after the resurrection, “embodied both impaired hands and feet and pierced side and the imago Dei.” This disabled God is the revelation of true personhood, underscoring the fact that “full personhood is fully compatible with the experience of disability.” Such an understanding causes of to rethink the conception of disability as an impairment to our participation in the image of God and alters taboos around the physical avoidance of disability. Further, and this is, IMHO, a crucial point, Eiesland stresses that:

Jesus Christ the disabled God, is not a romanticised notion of ‘overcomer’ God. Instead here is God as survivor… the image of survivor here evoked is that of a simple, unself-pitying, honest body, for whom the limits of power are palpable but not tragic.

In addition to this, the disabled God also makes interdependence a necessary condition of life, debunking myths of independence, and calling the Church to be a communion of justice, living out liberating action in the world. Eiesland concludes: “This God enables both a struggle for justice among people with disabilities and an end to enstrangement from our own bodies.”

Finally, in chapter 6, Eisland develops a sacramental theology that is premised upon the remembrance, and presence, of the disabled God at the Eucharistic table. In this way, justice for people with disabilities shakes the ritual and theological foundations of the Church. Unfortunately, the practice of the Eucharist has too often been a practice that stigmatised and isolated people with disabilities, functioning as a “dreaded and humiliating remembrance that in the church we are trespassers in an able-bodied dominion.” Thus, if the Eucharist is to be the practice of justice we must remember “the physical reality of that body broken for a people broken” and our practice must be marked by access and inclusion.

I found Eiesland’s book to be intriguing, inspiring, and a catalyst for many other thoughts; I highly recommend it. Eiesland herself has a physical disability and, in this book, focuses primarily on issues related to people with physical disabilities. However, I found myself wondering about the ways in which Church practices relate to people with mental disabilities (people whom I encounter a great deal). In particular, I have found myself reflecting upon the ways in which certain Church practices — like the assurance of salvation, participation in the sacraments, Church membership, and clergy status — hinge upon a certain level of mental ability. I find this disturbing on a number of levels but I’ll say no more about that here.

3. The Long Loneliness: An Autobiography by Dorothy Day.

Judging by the recent quotes from Day that have appeared on my blog, it should come as no surprise to hear me say that I quite enjoyed this book. Day, a somewhat “late” comer to Catholicism, was nurtured in the soil of anarchism, communism, socialism, and radical action. Indeed, in the way in which she, and Peter Maurin, were able to combine much of what was good of all these things within the “Catholic Worker” movement and their community houses, the Catholic Workers anticipated Latin American liberation theology and the development of Base Ecclesial Communities. Both are interested in, to quote Peter Maurin, “making the kind of society where it is easier for people to be good.”

As an aside, I will say this: I continually find the Catholics to be both the most inspiring and the most frustrating when it comes to social action. People like Day, and the spirit in which she writes this book, make me want to rush into the Catholic church, but people like Ratzinger, and the spirit in which he wrote his recent book on Jesus, make me want to rush the other way.

Anyway, back to this book. It as what it claims to be: an autobiography. As the story of Day, it is marked by longings, by hungers (both spiritual and physical), by action, by prayer, and by (com)passion. There is much about these things, as Day experiences them, that resonates with me. In particular, Day’s life is marked by “the long loneliness” — and the lives of those around her are similarly marked. Thus, she concludes with these words:

We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.

Yes, I too have known the long loneliness. And, yes, I too have found the love that leads me to community.

4. Derrida and Religion: Other Testaments edited by Yvonne Sherwood & Kevin Hart.

Like him or not, there is no denying that Derrida was brilliant and needs to be wrestled with seriously (although, to be honest, I need to wrestle seriously with Derrida simply in order to figure out what the hell he is talking about; it is one of the ironies related to Derrida: he writes so carefully in order to minimise our misunderstandings yet, precisely because of this care, his writings are often that much more difficult to understand!). Indeed, I believe that there is much that is good in Derrida’s reflections on the word, on the gift, on hospitality, on faith, and on revelation. The problem for me (apart from the struggle for comprehension) is that so many of those who have latched on to Derrida strike me as, well, obnoxious gits. Consequently, working through this series of essays from 27 contributors, I found that I was more often irritated than inspired (does that make me an obnoxious git?). Some sections, like the transcript of the meeting between members of AAR/SBL with Derrida in 2002, the chapter by Yvonne Sherwood and John Caputo on reading Amos with Derrida (“Otobiographies, Or How a Torn and Disembodied Ear Hears a Promise of Death”), and the chapter by Grace M. Jantzen that explores prayer, fasting, sex, and the “aporetical place” of the desert, especially through an exploration of the story of Mary of Egypt (“Touching (in) the Desert: Who Goes There?”) were wonderful and enlightening. Unfortunately, many of the other contributions made me want to rip the book apart and never read anything philosophical again.

5. Candide: Or, Optimism by Voltaire.

Fortunately, Voltaire came to the rescue of philosophy. Pleasurable and witty, I often found myself chuckling as I worked my way through this book. It is a really short read and, unlike many of the essays on “Derrida and religion,” it makes philosophy a great deal of fun. Recommended reading.

On the surface, Candide is Voltaire’s attack on the form of optimism that believes that “everything that happens is conducive to the good” in this world, which is “the best of all possible worlds.” This is the philosophical position that is taught to the protagonist — Candide — and is, for most of the rest of the novel, shown to be ludicrous as tragedy after tragedy befalls all the central characters (and many others besides). However, beneath the surface, Voltaire is also exploring the question of what leads to happiness, and is simultaneously praising human resilience. Ultimately, seeming to reject both optimism and absolute pessimism, Candide concludes that “we must go and work in the garden.” It is this work (without arguing!) that finally, and literally, bears some fruit.

6. Love is a Dog from Hell: Poems 1974-1977 by Charles Bukowski.

Well, I almost never read poetry but this book was a real steal so I thought I would pick it up. When I was younger, I really tried to get into poetry. I thought it would make me “cultured.” Unfortunately, I just couldn’t get into it and so this was the first book of poetry that I have read in years. I find that I enjoy Bukowski’s style of writing poetry more than most (or all?) of the other poets I have read. Further, he is often witty, and I laughed reading more than one of the poems contained here. Unfortunately, he is also quite lewd. Apart from that, I really enjoy reading about the slums, the prostitutes, the addictions, the drinking, and the gambling, from the perspective of one who represents many who will never have their voices heard. So, I continue to have mixed feelings about Bukowski. Consequently, I can’t recommend him.

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