Posted by: Dan | April 11, 2011

February and March Books

These are well overdue… I’ve finished another 10,000 words on my chapter about Roman ideology and sociopolitical structures, but I seem to not have written much of anything else.  My apologies.

1. The Complete Works of Horace by Horace.

Horace is probably most well-known amongst New Testament scholars because of his Carmen Seculare — his hymn to the New (Golden) Age inaugurated by Augustus and officially celebrated at the Ludi Seculares (the Secular Games) in 17BCE.  It is an excellent poetic snapshot of many of the central themes of the theopolitical vision of Rome–referring to renewed fertility, peace, abundance, mercy, virtue, victory and so on.

However, Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus — a friend and client of Maecenas, who was a close friend of Augustus) wrote a great deal more than that hymn, and this volume also contains four books of odes, a collection of epodes, a famous essay called The Art of Poetry, two books of satires, and two books of epistles (including one epistle written to the Emperor).  Taken together, the writings of Horace provide an excellent glimpse into certain elements of Roman life and values at the beginning of the first century CE.  The more one immerses one’s self in this literature, the more certain themes — especially those related to patronage, status, virtue, election, and family values — gain in prominence.

2. The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries To Hide It) by Thom Stark.

I just reviewed this in detail here.  Stark responds here.  He has a tendency to try and refute critics by talking and talking and talking until nobody gives a damn about the subject at hand (I think he seems to be mistaking the silence of the opposition for something more than that [agreement?]… although maybe he is just happy with the silence).  Regardless, I’m not convinced by everything he writes in his response (by the end of it, you’ll notice that my review never actually accurately reflects anything in Stark’s book…  that made me chuckle!), but I am happy to give him the opportunity to clarify points that certainly were not clearly stated in The Human Faces of God.

3. My People is the Enemy by William Stringfellow.

Anyway, moving on to a fellow who really knew a thing or two about practicing his religion at the margins, I arrive at this autobiographical account of the time William Stringfellow spent living in Harlem in the 1950s and ’60s (many thanks to Robin at Wipf and Stock for this complimentary copy!).

Stringfellow is something of a darling amongst a certain group of Christians–i.e. those who appear to have come from a Conservative background and who still strongly value their Christian faith but who want to become more involved in culture, politics, and economics with an orientation towards justice.  So, hey, Stringfellow writes fantastic theology, he was a lawyer engaged in sociopolitical and economic struggles at the grassroots in Harlem, he also organized within the church and, oh, he was gay.  Perfect, right?  Christians from this group can then just go around talking about Stringfellow and that changes their brand status without requiring them to engage in any sort of grassroots struggle for justice and without requiring them to actually know (or, gasp, fully welcome) any non-hetero people!

Okay, that’s my dig at Stringfellow’s audience (how many times has Halden mentioned him on his blog, but what are Halden’s views on sexuality and where is he rooted?  Sorry, Halden!).  I shouldn’t let that distract me from the book at hand.  I should also remember that I am included amongst those groupies (to a certain extent), as I’ve loved the other books I’ve read by Stringfellow.

This book is structured in five parts: Initiation (into the community of the poor), Acceptance (by the community rooted there), Involvement (within and on behalf of that community), Premonition (about the magnitude of the economic and racial divide in America, one that goes far deeper than liberal platitudes are able to recognize), and Epiphany (which points towards a way for white churches and congregants to live more genuinely as Christians and move towards reconciliation with those who are poor or non-white or both).  All in all, this book is full of a lot of great material and I strongly recommend it, not only to those who are accustomed to reading theology but to all readers.  Stringfellow is able to expound upon serious matters in a way that sacrifices neither the seriousness of those matters nor the clarity of his explanation.

However, I do also want to raise a few critical questions.  When he first moves to Harlem, Stringfellow realizes that there is not point in pretending to be something or someone that he is not.  He cannot pretend that he is anything but a white, Christian male coming from a background of privilege and status (he studied law at Harvard).  So far so good.  I’m tired of “homeless chic” or those who slum it just for the sake of slumming it, that one finds amongst (mostly superficial) social activists and hipsters.  However, Stringfellow then says this:

in order that my life and work [in Harlem] should have integrity, I had to be and to remain whoever I had become as a person before coming there.  To be accepted by others, a man must first of all know himself and accept himself and be himself wherever he happens to be.  In that way, others are also freed to be themselves.

To come to Harlem involved, thus, no renunciation of my own past or of any part of it… where I happen to be and what I happen to be doing does not determine the issue of who I am as a human being, or how my own person may be expressed and fulfilled…

I crossed a lot of boundaries in the course of a day.  This in itself is not important.  What is very important is that in crossing boundaries of class and race and education and all the rest, a man remain himself.  What is important is not where a man is, but who a man is, and that he is the same man wherever he is…

The issue for any man, in any place, is to be the same man he is in every other place (p.25-28).

Pardon the androcentric language, it will come up again — even the most liberating voices tend to have their blind-spots (something to bear in mind when reading the Bible as well!).

I disagree with Stringfellow on several points here.  While I appreciate his emphasis upon living with integrity and not posing as something we are not, I do not think that it is necessary for a person to continue to be whomever this person has been in the past.  In fact, I think the opposite is necessary: we are more “becoming” than “being” and so it is well worthwhile to pursue a life of ongoing transformation and development.  This does not mean denying or abandoning one’s past, or one’s past selves (I agree with Stringfellow that others are more comfortable with themselves when we are comfortable with ourselves).  It simply means that we need neither to be bound by our past, nor to have our identities rooted there.  I also very strongly disagree with Stringfellow’s assertion that one’s location and actions have no impact upon one’s identity as a human being.  On a very banal level this is true (where I live and what I do, does not change my genetic makeup), but one’s location and actions do have a very strong impact upon the kind of human being a person becomes.  Here, I can’t help but wonder if Stringfellow is unaware of the way in which his own location — having studied a great deal and pursued higher education in the early twentieth century — has blinded him to the impact that locations have upon constructions of self (Stringfellow later recognizes the importance of place for the formation and practice of the law [cf. p44] but he doesn’t draw the same conclusion about one’s identity).  Ironically, I suspect that Stringfellow is only able to see his identity as something isolated from place or deed, because he comes from a certain place.  Thus, I also disagree with his prioritization of this “self” over concrete actions like crossing boundaries.  What really matters are those transgressive acts and it is exactly those acts that will create mutations within your self.  And that is a good thing.

More broadly, I also want to comment on Stringfellow’s understanding of what it means to be a Christian.  He writes:

To become and to be a Christian is not at all an escape from the world as it is, nor is it a wistful longing for a “better” world, nor a commitment to generous charity, nor fondness for “moral and spiritual values” (whatever that may mean), or self-serving positive thoughts, nor persuasion to splendid abstractions about God [cf. pretty much everything related to theological aesthetics].  It is, instead, the knowledge that there is no pain or privation, no humiliation or disaster, no scourge or distress or destitution or hunger, no striving or temptation, no wile or sickness or suffering or poverty which God has not known and borne for men in Jesus Christ.  He has borne death itself on behalf of men, and in that event He has broken the power of death once and for all.

This is the event which Christians confess and celebrate and witness in their daily work and worship for the sake of all men.

To become and to be a Christian is, therefore, to have the extraordinary freedom to share the burdens of the daily common, ambiguous, transient, perishing existence of men, even to the point of actually taking the place of another man, whether he be powerful or weak, in health or in sickness, clothed or naked, educated or illiterate, secure or persecuted, complacent or despondent, proud or forgotten, housed or homeless, fed or hungry, at liberty or in prison, young or old, white or Negro, rich or poor.

I find this to be a very moving understanding of what it means to be a Christian.  Yet it is rather paradoxical, isn’t it?  As far as I can tell, the way in which Christians actually witness the breaking of the power of death is by choosing to die so that others may live.  The shitty thing about that, is that death is still pretty involved and pretty powerful.  Somebody’s dying either way.  Fuck, I’m tired of that.  Oh, and the other interesting implication of this definition of what it means to be a Christian is that most of the Stringfellow groupies who accept it (myself included) should not dare to apply that title to themselves.

4. Thus Spake Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche.

Well, having read more than enough about Nietzsche, I thought I was well overdue to actually sit down and start reading the man himself.  I plan to read a few books by him this year, so I figured I would talk things in chronological order.  All told, this book was a decent place to start.  A lot of prominent themes are present here — the will to power, the revaluation of values, the super man, and so on.  However, I can’t say I loved the way this book is designed (the story of Zarathustra and the melodramatic nature of its telling).  It’s almost as though Nietzsche was writing fan fiction… about himself.  Despite that criticism, there is still a lot of force to his arguments.  So, I’m happy to be on my way here and will be picking up Beyond Good and Evil next.

5. Time For Revolution by Antonio Negri.

I’ve gotta say that these two essays by Negri (“The Constitution of Time” [1981] and “Kairos, Alma Venus, Multitudo” [2000]) left me feeling a little uninspired.  Maybe I didn’t really understand enough of what Negri was trying to do.  There were, of course, exciting moments, like when he gets into talking about the love of the poor as the location of revolutionary potential (NB: this is not our love for the poor, but the love the poor exhibit amongst themselves… and a great gap separates those two loves), but as a whole, both essays left me flat (the former more than the latter).  Half of the time I was wondering why Negri was struggling so hard to make a certain point, and the other half of the time I was unconvinced by the point he was trying to make (especially his emphatic desire to remain within “materialism” as much of his outlook strikes me as heavily ideological or theological in nature).  I enjoyed the trilogy he co-authored with Michael Hardt much more.

6. 2666 by Roberto Bolaño.

This book, published after Bolaño died and before he finalized it, left me with mixed feelings.  The first two sections were incredible, the third section felt too long and overdone, and the fourth section didn’t quote redeem the drift that happened in the third.  It’s hard to know if the book ended the way Bolaño wanted (in the style in which the Coen brothers ended their adaptation of No Country For Old Men) or if it only ended that way because the author died.  Regardless, this is still a pretty incredible piece of literature.  I’m absolutely amazed by Bolaño’s breadth of knowledge.  Some authors are massively intimidating when it comes to the amount of research they put into writing books (fuck that “write what you know” bullshit… more like learn what you want to write!).

Basically, the centrepiece of this novel is a small town in Mexico where a lot of women and girls are disappearing and getting murdered.  However, to get there we travel through a circle of European literary critics, an American law officer, and a number of other characters, including an elusive German author.  Really, it’s hard to do justice to the scope of this text.  It is, however, recommended reading.

7. The Age of Reason by Jean-Paul Sartre.

I’ve hardly read anything by Sartre, but I’ve loved what I have read.  I’m glad this book is the first volume of a trilogy, as I’m looking forward to seeing how things go with the characters and themes Sartre has developed.  For some reason, I really connect with the existentialist French literature that cropped up during the World Wars (Camus remains one of my favourite authors).

In this novel, Sartre does a fine job of capturing the ways in which people are caught between their ideals and their lived lives, between freedom and relationships (both of which can be either life-giving or death-dealing… hence the bind), and in the general bullshit that comes to occupy our years.  Maybe it’s dangerous for me to be reading Sartre at the same time as Nietzsche.  Sartre reaffirms my feeling that life is just one fucked-up meaningless struggle, always ending in defeat, so Nietzsche then jumps in with a call to forget the struggle, forget everybody else, and go and seize what I want (unfortunately, I am too rooted in the company of the former and so I conclude that there is nothing meaningful worth seizing ; thus, this day-to-day existence is just as good and bad as any and every other alternative).

8. I, Superhero!! by Mike McMullen AKA “The Amazing Whitebread.”

Many thanks to the author and to Richard Ember at Kensington for this review copy!

A couple months ago, I had the privilege of posting an interview with Thanatos, a “real life superhero” (RLSH) who operates in Vancouver’s downtown eastside (and who just happens to be one of the most respected members of that movement, although I didn’t learn that till afterward when perusing the various RLSH websites and discussion boards).  One of the fun things that came out of that interview was The Amazing Whitebread’s offering me a review copy of this book.

In it, he documents his own journey into the realm of contemporary super (or not so super) heroes and villains (I love that there are real life super villains… although I feel like they are not tapping into their full potential… which is probably a good thing and keeps them off of the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list).  Thus, the book alternates back and forth from the author’s progression into being a hero to stories of various interviews that the author did with heroes like Geist, Master Legend, Amazonia, and Mr. Xtreme (who is the only member of the Xtreme Justice League–sweet!) and villains like the Joker of Chaos, Psycho-Babble, and Omniarch Supreme.  One of the things I realized reading the book (and from the RLSH sites I mentioned) is how lucky I was to first encounter Thanatos.  Seriously, a lot of the people associated with this movement seem genuinely delusional or are simply patriotic law-abiding assholes (who bully around kids who paint graffiti or who want to jump into bar brawls) or patriotic law-abiding losers.  I like the loser guys more than the assholes (although I think that the delusional ones would probably be the most fun to hang around with on special occasions) but if they are going to serve “justice” then they really need to become more critical about the dominant script of America, which determines what is or is not “just.”

One of the major themes within the annals of superheroes is resistance to the abuse of power and corruption that is intrinsic to police forces, political parties, law courts, and the “justice system” as a whole.  I don’t really see any RLSHs who are keen to step up and actually take on those Powers… because, you know, that tends to require an heroic effort.  Instead, RLSHs are too busy chasing around petty offenders or pot dealers and simply furthering the dehumanization of those whom society has already dehumanized.  Lots of these guys and gals in this movement just can’t wait to bash/beat/kill/whatever a sex offender.  Now, I agree that sexual violence is a terrible, terrible thing but, again, it is generally the product of a certain environment and certain systemic structures.  Victimizing somebody who has already been victimized (and who then goes on to victimize others) sort of misses the point.  If you want to pursue “justice” then first find out what it is, instead of simply accepting the definition provided by those who benefit the most from our unjust status quo.

Anyway, I’ve gone off on a bit of a tangent there.  All in all, this was a fun book to read.  At times it dragged a little (mostly when the author was talking about his own transformation… reading about his diet and gym routine wasn’t the most gripping part of the book) but the characters assembled here are truly one of a kind.  Also, I really enjoyed the author’s concluding reflections upon the RLSH movement, what it does and does not do, and basically calling out a number of claims made by the various members.  I can’t say I agreed with his alternative (basically: “being in shape and being a good dad and husband makes me a real hero”) as I think that it gives up on the struggle for justice–a struggle that is still sorely needed.  I admire the RLSHs for their commitments to that struggle and for their willingness to confront their own fears and make sacrifices as they engage in that struggle (even if their commitments are misguided).  My hope, then, would be that those who engage in this movement eventually move beyond it, not to fall back into some sort of bourgeois lifestyle, but in order to move beyond it into grassroots organization in order to produce more life-giving ways of sharing life together and direct action in order to resist the death-dealing powers that confront us and others.

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Responses

  1. Glad to know someone else has read 2666. I read it a couple years ago and am still not entirely sure what happened! What did you make of the artist fellow who cut off his hand?

    He also has an interesting little book of poems called The Romantic Dogs, which is mostly worth checking out.

  2. If you’re trying to read Nietzsche chronologically, you messed up by starting with Zarathustra (if you’re going latest to earliest or vice versa). Beyond Good and Evil is a good next step, but then be sure to move on to On the Genealogy of Morals. I still wrestle with the latter book’s analysis of ressentiment and how it can infect one’s siding with the marginalized. One might argue that there is a lot to be resentful about today in the structures of power and privilege that are ascendant. But I think Nietzsche is right that such resentment is a sign of decadence. Even if his alternative is off, such decadence is surely a manifestation of Death–perhaps Death’s self-hatred?

    • Hey Darren,

      Sorry, to be clear I’m not trying to read everything Nietzsche wrote. I just chose the titles that interested me the most and I am reading them chronologically. I’ve already got “Genealogy of Morals” scheduled in after “Beyond Good and Evil.”

      • Dan, still enjoying your blog from time to time, keep it up. Don’t forget Heidegger’s 2 volume lecture course(s) on Nietzsche, which are on my top 10 books of all time.

  3. Thanks for the extended reflection on Stringfellow. We just moved back to our old ‘hood (from a stint in rural Ontario) and as spring ‘awakens’ the neigbourhood I am left wondering again what the hell I think I think I am doing (throwing a kid in to boot now as well). I have been posting a little on it and hope to more so. No worries about the earlier post of mine you mentioned. I wrote that off to the void so if you have the time great. I just really struggle, particularly, with what I am getting others into (and how I mutually navigate that decision making process). All in process . . . becoming as you put it.

  4. Nevermind the book reviews. I can’t wait to get into those 10 000 words of yours.
    Have you got anything on the way in which early Christians in the roman Empire responded to having their acts of service co-opted by the powers that be?

    At any rate, they seem to have done a good job of mightily pi**ing off Julian the Apostate, if the following quote is accurate:

    “Why do we not observe that it is their benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead, and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done most to increase atheism? … For it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galileans support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us. Teach those of the Hellenic faith to contribute to public service of this sort!”

    • Hey Dany,

      The sort of thing you mention tended to take place after the NT period. With Paul & Co., the Powers were just becoming aware of the problem they had on their hands and thought they could just exterminate it (no need for co-option at that point… or so they thought).

      Of course, the economic mutualism and care for the poor (not only within the Christian ekklesiai but also care for others as well) is well established from the beginning of Christianity and follows in the footsteps of Second Temple Judaism.

      I really like your thoughts on this subject… largely because of the contemporary implications, so I hope you dig around some more.


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