Virus as Summons to Faith

Virus as a Summons to Faith: Biblical Reflections in a Time of Loss, Grief, and UncertaintyVirus as a Summons to Faith: Biblical Reflections in a Time of Loss, Grief, and Uncertainty by Walter Brueggemann
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"These dangers, however, are not decisive for what is possible or for what is required in the world. Thus war, pestilence, and famine are finally seen as accountable to the creator God, who presides even over such disasters. Virus is thereby robbed of its capacity to disorder daily life. In effect, these texts decisively change the subject from disaster to the rule of YHWH. Such a changed subject revises how we may live in the neighborhood when it is under threat."

Finished in early April, this book might have been most helpful then. But it seems to me not to deal as substantively with the current ambiguities and uncertainties of the crisis as well as I had hoped. Some of the best parts of the book are prayers he has written between the chapters and which I'm certain I will use liturgically. And, as always with Brueggeman, some lines and paragraphs that will be useful for preaching.

But I felt that theologically and biblically it didn't give me the meat I need right now. N. T. Wright has also released a book on the pandemic, which I have preordered but won't arrive until July.

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Four Quartets

Four QuartetsFour Quartets by T.S. Eliot
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"In the uncertain hour before the morning
Near the ending of interminable night
At the recurrent end of the unending . . ."

I often battle insomnia and even moreso in recent weeks with it occurring almost every night. In the wee hours of this morning I decided to start Eliot's Four Quartets and didn't put it down. I regret not having read it before, but it is also fitting for the time in which we live.

A time when we are having trouble making sense of time. When we wonder if our past is forever past, what our future might be, and how long this present full of waiting and suspension will last. These four poems are about "the still point of the turning world." Melancholic, humble, and hopeful reflections on time.

Back in college I read The Waste Land but have only since then read an Eliot poem or passage here or there when it appeared in some anthology or book. Recently I read The Year of Our Lord 1943 which focused on a handful of Christian thinkers trying to make sense of the crisis of the Second World War and to imagine what might come next. Eliot was one of the thinkers featured in the book and much attention was paid to this book. So, since I've been bingeing poetry this pandemic, I ordered it to read. And am quite grateful I did.

Of course, I should end this review with the most famous lines from the book,

"All shall be well, and
All manner of thing shall be well."

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Reason for Being

Reason for Being: A Meditation on EcclesiastesReason for Being: A Meditation on Ecclesiastes by Jacques Ellul
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"In the midst of a crisis, a person finds himself undetermined in such a way that his freedom can function."

Ellul the humanist explores this most philosophical of biblical books finding in it important messages for twentieth century human life. Here is a good summary of some main points:

"But the first step in wisdom consists of recognizing wisdom's vanity, acknowledging its limitations. We must live, work, and find joy within this understanding to which Qohelet invites us: no wisdom can enlighten us, or enable us to organize things so as to understand the world and history. No wisdom can establish a scale of moral values . . . . True, no wisdom or meaning exists; all the same, we will live; all the same, we will act; all the same, we will be capable of happiness and hope. The only true wisdom we can aspire to consists of the perception that no wisdom is possible. On that basis we must construct our lives, beginning at that negative point."

There is much to commend itself in this book, particularly in the midst of our current global crisis. But I thought the book could have used some serious editing. A more concise presentation of its points would have been a better read.

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The Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided World

The Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided WorldThe Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided World by Michael Ignatieff
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I wish I could rush into an ethics classroom and teach this book. It is excellent. I devoured it quickly.

Ignatieff, both an academic and political leader, explores the impact that human rights have had upon the globe, shaping the moral order. A key idea of the book is that over the last fifty years we have improved morally as a species, with the advances in human rights, humanitarian responses to suffering, and environmentalism.

He sets out to various global hotspots to explore the current global moral order--Queens, LA, Rio, Bosnia, Myanmar, Fukushima, and South Africa. In these places he dialogues with poor women living in shanties and prominent public officials. He is a sympathetic and compassionate listener who draws keen philosophical insights from what he observes. A brilliant model for how to do academic work in our time.

What he discovers is that there are a few key aspects of ordinary virtue that humans seem to share. Trust, tolerance, and resilience are among them. And key to promoting these virtues are well run public institutions and civil society. Ordinary virtue becomes almost impossible in a broken, violent, corrupt society. He writes, "The whole point of a liberal society is to create laws and institutions that make virtue ordinary."

The most brilliant chapter is that on Fukushima, and I would recommend it as reading right now in our moment of global pandemic. He writes that the triple disaster in Japan--earthquake, tsunami, meltdown--was the unimaginable and that we moderns are not well prepared for the unimaginable to happen. Yet, the unimaginable has consistently been occurring the last twenty years eroding our trust in our institutions which keep failing us and eroding our ability to plan for and hope for our futures. He writes, "Instead of embracing the future, imagining radiant tomorrows, we now think of the future in the language of harm reduction, target hardening, and risk management." This breakdown has made humans more individualistic in their resilience strategies.

Here is the final paragraph of that brilliant chapter, where he discusses hope:

The hope I am talking about is an ordinary virtue: it is free of hubris, and so it takes for granted, that we will not always be able to avoid the worst. At the same time, it is not misanthropic: it prepares for the worst but does not think the worst of human beings. It is anti-utopian: while it believes that over time we get better at learning from our mistakes, it does not have any faith that we can fundamentally change; it is rationalist but questions that History, with a capital H, is knowable. It draws faith from the past, from the memory of the samurai, but it also knows that sometimes all you can do is to keep moving, keep going toward the future, no matter how uncertain the destination. But resilience has an unshakeable, physical element of faith. It affirms that we do learn and that we are not condemned to endless repetition of our folly. This complex hope is, I believe, what underpins human resilience, more than an attitude of responsibility toward others. It is also a metaphysical commitment, deep inside, usually left unspoken, to the future continuity of human life itself, no matter what, a commitment best expressed by the belief that we will not only survive but prevail.

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Words Like Thunder

Words Like Thunder: New and Used Anishinaabe PrayersWords Like Thunder: New and Used Anishinaabe Prayers by Lois Beardslee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"We sing these songs when we pause between strides and heartbeats to listen to old mountains weep and sigh."

A moving collection of poems celebrating and honoring indigenous women. Beardslee writes rich metaphors and paints evocative pictures with her words. Her poems are empowering.

"She rests on her heels, patient, sharing a spreading, lower world of foliage with delicate wasps that suck juice from dark fruits--like her, hovering, and hungry for opportunity, for continuity, and for forever."

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The Way into Jewish Mystical Tradition

The Way Into Jewish Mystical TraditionThe Way Into Jewish Mystical Tradition by Lawrence Kushner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Something sacred is at stake in every event."--Abraham Joshua Heschel

I enjoyed this book. An introduction to Jewish mysticism focused on 50 key ideas structured under 9 overarching themes. And with each idea the author introduces us to an important figure or text in the tradition. So you learn a little of the history at the same time you learn the main ideas.

I highlighted a number of lines and passages that I will likely use in my teaching and preaching. Here's a good one from the 18th century mystic Menachem Nachum Twersky of Chernobyl:

"God is the fullness of the world; there is no place empty of the divine. There is nothing besides God and everything that exists comes from God. And, for this reason, the power of the Creator resides within each created thing."

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Festival of Homiletics Thursday

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As Karoline Lewis pointed out, we are in "an unprecedented homiletical moment."

Earlier in the day William Barber emphasized that in the past we have tried to heal the wounds of the people with Band-Aids.  And now God is furious and the church should be furious, because this didn't have to be--the results of this pandemic on our nation.  He proclaimed that if we don't fix these pre-existing wounds our attempts to deal with the pandemic will fail.

For me the star of the day was the newcomer, Lenny Duncan, who delivered a passionate short sermon before Dr. Barber.  He talked about how we are currently grappling with questions at the very margins of theology.  In this crisis the church is left with "strange and ancient stories of love defeating death."  He talked about how to make use of those stories in this moment.  He spoke the reality that we are "bewildered, angry, and afraid" and that we should sit in the lament of all that we could have been and should have been and could have done in ministry with our people.  This feels like an important truth to spend some time with.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove  advised preaching be focused on the pastoral task of blessing because everyone is grieving and experiencing a spiritual depression.  Blessing is key because of the truth that God blesses us where it hurts.


A Brief History of Fruit

A Brief History of Fruit: PoemsA Brief History of Fruit: Poems by Kimberly Quiogue Andrews
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"We regret to inform you
that all the IKEA furniture you own
will at some point in the indeterminate but middle-term future
rise up against you by way of labeling each of your body parts
with a letter or a number, dismembering you, and storing you
in a flatpack box for easy transport and eventual reassembly."

I have rarely laughed out loud as much reading a book of poetry as I did this one. I really enjoyed it and recommend it to you.

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Telling the Truth

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I'm "attending" the Festival of Homiletics this week (from my dining room). The lecture I just watched was by Ellen F. Davis who teaches at Duke. She was talking about truth telling.

Our primary vocation is to shape our words, imaginations, and lives by the biblical story. We have the responsibility to affirm moral imagination as a social force & a genuine politics which negotiates difference with a concern for truth. To do these things we must tell the story well. The guidelines for truthful storytelling are:

  • transparency that opens a window onto the present moment,
  • faith that looks for God's work
  • hope that opens to the future
  • and love

She focused on the early Exodus story to explore creation, power, and fear.  We need to summon courage and humility in order to face how we are corporately Pharaoh, healing our (hardened) heart disease.

The Bible is not fantasy literature.  Destructive power is real, and its consequences are tragically permanent.

What started in the story as natural fear has, through the story, become holy fear.  Fear of the Lord is true faith.  It is knowing where real power reside and acting on it.  It is the opposite of pharaonic insanity, arrogance, recklessness, and moral blindness.  Fear of the Lord is empowering, because it is the flipside of the love of God.