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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 Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis

The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of CrisisThe Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis by Alan Jacobs
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Some months ago this book was reviewed in The Christian Century and I put it on my to-read list. Last week looking for some work-related books to order, I saw this on the list and thought "That might be relevant to our moment" so I ordered it and have already finished it.

The book focuses on five thinkers--Jacques Maritain, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, C. S. Lewis, and Simone Weil--as they imagined what the future should be like after the Second World War. The key idea was that "miseducation had left the ordinary citizens of Western democracies in helpless thrall to the propagandistic machinations of unscrupulous nationalist movements," so they reimagined what education could/should do. A key theme was that they were critical of the technological fixes so fascinated upon by many in the West.

Jacobs is clear at the end that the changes these folks imagined did not occur. In many ways, it is a pessimistic book.

I did find some ideas that might be helpful to our current moment, and I did order one Auden book and one Eliot book that I haven't read. Also, there's one really excellent Bonhoeffer quote in the book.

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The Religious Affections

The Religious AffectionsThe Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"God's nature or divinity is infinitely excellent; yea it is infinite beauty, brightness, and glory itself."

I'd read parts of The Religious Affections, particularly the good Part 1, before and had been looking forward to this spring reading the entire book. But it is really not the type of writing I can focus well on at the moment, so about 160 pages in, I'm abandoning it for now.

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Finally Comes the Poet

Finally Comes the PoetFinally Comes the Poet by Walter Brueggemann
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A powerful and vivid description of the art of preaching. With interesting comments on the task of listening, engaging in conversation, and building communion. His unpacking of a few biblical stories is quite good, but then he is the greatest living commentator on the Old Testament.

This book was a gift from a retired minister whose newborn granddaughter's funeral I did this winter.

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Whispered words

Here are a handful of sentences and phrases from the first chapter of Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki's The Whispered Word that particularly resonated with me:

  • Even as we speak, God is calling all worlds, and thus even our world, and ourselves with it, into being.
  • To exist is, by definition, to be receiving a word from God.
  • God's creative word is given as invitation and as promise.  As promise, it suggests that which is truly possible for the emerging reality; as invitation, it calls that reality toward precisely this invited becoming.
  • God's word to us encounters the realities of our distant and immediate past with the possibilities of what our immediate and distant future might yet be.
  • God's creative word meets our condition, emerging quietly and most often unnoticeably in the midst of who and where we are.
  • There is no situation, no matter how dreadful, beyond the creative and transformative power of God.  The word of God is incarnational, clothed in the flesh of the past, but offering the possibility of a new future.
  • There is never a moment when God does not offer a formative word.
  • It's as if God has created us not as individuals unto ourselves, but as participants in a world; we are created for one another.
  • We are never addressed by God as if we were the only creature in the universe: We are addressed by God as a living participant in the fullness of God's creative work.
  • Because the word takes in all our circumstances, the word offers us that which we can really become; it is an achievable word, and to that extent it is an empowering word."

The Spirit of Hope

The Spirit of HopeThe Spirit of Hope by Jurgen Moltmann
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Moltmann's book In the End, the Beginning is rather important to my own story, having helped me when I read it back in 2004 and subsequently shaping my thinking on a host of topics, most importantly how we hope in the midst of catastrophes. I had ordered this book before the Coronavirus quarantine wanting to read its theological thoughts on climate change, but preparing to preach for the Easter season in the midst of the virus, I thought I'd go ahead and read it.

It wasn't exactly the book I had hoped it would be. It is a collection of essays really, with very little connecting thread, but isn't presented explicitly as a collection. But as a collection the quality of the chapters varies. Some are quite excellent and will provide ideas and quotes that I'll use for a long time, while other chapters are less engaging or well written. In many ways the book functions as Moltmann tying up some loose ends or responding to some key questions of his lifetime of work. He is, afterall, the leading Protestant theologian in the world.

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Howard Thurman

The third in my series of the second volume of Gary Dorrien's history of Black Social Gospel Theology.  The last post was this one about Benjamin Mays.

Howard Thurman

Dorrien introduces Thurman with this paragraph:

Howard Thurman was a product of the southern black church and a classmate of Martin Luther King Sr.  In his early career he became a pastor, professor, social gospel leader, and Quaker-influenced mystic and pacifist.  Later he became an ecumenical leader of racial integration, a chapel dean, an advisor to movement leaders, a prolific author, and a spiritual influence on Martin Luther King, Jr. He may also have become a saint.  He played his most direct role as a civil rights leader in the 1930s and early 1940s, as a star on the lecture circuit.  Then he became a sage and author, exerting a different kind of influence.  Then his influence grew after he was gone.

Last year I posted this review of Thurman's Jesus and the Disinherited.

A traumatizing early childhood experience at a funeral led Thurman to reject "authority religion, fear-based religion, and evangelism."  Also in childhood, his family were friends with educational reformer and civil rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune.

Of growing up in segregation, he wrote, "There are few things more devastating than to have it burned into you that you do not count and that no provisions are made for the literal protection of your person.  The threat of violence is ever present, and there is no way to determine precisely when it may come crushing down upon you."

Thurman wrote his master's thesis on sexual morality, sadly never returning the subject later in his writing career.  He argued that "sexual desire was an expression of the loving and unifying Spirit of God," according to Dorrien.  The thesis concluded that "the history of sex with its great power and its beauty of holiness is still in its infancy."

His motto for his mission work was "I go because he has something for me that I must have if I am to be what I ought to be."

According to Dorrien, through his education from Rufus Jones, Thurman became a mystic and pacifist and understood the value of these for African Americans as "Black pacifism was about relaxing sufficiently to enable creativity."  

While on an international mission trip, he was challenged to explain why African Americans would still believe in Jesus since Christianity had done so much to harm people of color.  He later turned this conversation and his answer into Jesus and the Disinherited.  He had a brief but important meeting with Gandhi where the latter emphasized that nonviolence never passive but is the only form of direct action.  Gandhi emphasized that one's life "must be a living sermon."  Gandhi asked the delegation to sing "Were You There" feeling that the song "gets to the root of the experience of the entire human race under the spread of the healing wings of suffering."

Thurman's was a socially engaged mysticism, but he himself did not want to be the movement leader, believing he had other contributions to make.  We would respond "Don't ask what the world needs.  Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it.  Because what the world needs is people who have come alive."

Thurman pastored one of the first intentionally interracial congregations.  It was very progressive, rejecting traditional doctrines about Jesus as irrelevant for the oppressed in the modern age and emphasizing a universal love ethic.  "When I have lost harmony with another, my whole life is thrown out of tune.  For the sake of my unity with God, I keep working on my relations with my fellows.  This is ever the insistence of all ethical religion."  The point of religion is to be transformed by divine love.

Dorrien summarizes Thurman on this point about spiritual transformation: "The hope of the disinherited is to be included in the flourishing of democracy and the saving work of God's Spirit.  If moral truth is not universal, it is neither moral nor true.  The disinherited, while coping with their oppression, needed to claim their rights without reproducing the world's mendacity and hatred."


Benjamin Mays

The first post in this series as I read Gary Dorrien's Breaking White Supremacy, on the history of Black Social Gospel Theology, was about Mordecai Johnson.

Mays

In chapter 3 of the book, entitled "Moral Politics and the Soul of the World" Dorrien features Benjamin Mays and Howard Thurman while discussing their interactions and Gandhi and influences upon King.  First Benjamin Mays.

The longtime President of Morehouse College grew up in South Carolina.  He said of this childhood, "The experiences I had in my most impressionable years, hearing and seeing the mob, observing the way my people were treated, noting the way in which they responded to this treatment, never having developed any white friends in the county, and living all my early years in a rented house--all this left me with a feeling of alienation from the country of my birth."  He described growing up in this segregated world that "the wings of ambition were crushed at birth."

Attending Old Mount Zion church where James F. Marshall was pastor, Mays later described Marshall's gospel--"primarily an opiate to enable them to endure and survive the oppressive conditions under which they lived at the hands of the white people in the community."  

Mays determined to pursue an education to have something more out of life.  In college he described feeling at home in the universe.  Inspired by the socialist Eugene Debs, Mays wanted a heroic Jesus, not meek and mild.  In seminary he learned and adopted the latest liberal thinking.  In his dissertation entitled "Pagan Survivals in Christianity," he argued that acknowledging these meant that "Christianity was inevitably bound up with the environmental forces of the Roman world; that it is an evolutionary movement; and must be modified, as all movements are, by its environment."

Dorrien records that Mays was fond of saying that "no person is free who backs away from the truth."

In a landmark early study, Mays criticized the black church for its conservative theology and failure to grapple with social issues.  But this wasn't really their fault as this resulted from oppression.  He did admire it as a "genuinely democratic fellowship."

Mays embraced the black social gospel--"It does not encourage one to wait for justice in the other world.  It does not dissipate itself in mere feeling."  Rather, "It tends to give one poise and balance to struggle for social righteousness here on the earth."

Mays was one of the first scholars to contend that there was a unique theological contribution in the black church where their ideas of God were "chiseled out of the very fabric of the social struggle."

Mays became a leader in the international ecumenical movement, which brought him to India and an important meeting with Gandhi in 1937.  He brought Gandhi's message of nonviolent resistance back to the US and began to write and speak about it.  

He was a part of international efforts of Christians to challenge the rise of Fascism in Europe, but her feared that the movement was too late.  He was discouraged when ecumenical statements of denominations were not embraced by congregations; he wrote "social custom makes cowards of most Christians and I fear the majority of ministers."  He proclaimed that "When the church truly repents, let us not deceive ourselves, it will be a suffering church."

Racism and a problem created by modern Christianity arising from the colonial project of European powers.  He wrote, "It is the modern church that again crucifies the body of Christ on a racial cross."  He authored the Federal Council of the Churches 1946 condemnation of segregation.  

He held out hope for a transformative movement--"If Germany through brutal means can build a kingdom evil in one decade and if Russia, through brutal processes, construct a new order in two decades, we can democratize and Christianize America in one generation."

Dorrien contends that Mays's most important legacy was his mentorship of his student Martin Luther King, Jr.  Dorrien writes that King chose Mays as a model when leadership in the movement was thrust upon him as a young age.

May declared, "I just want to be human and be allowed to walk the earth with dignity."