A Year of Reading

Reading 2019

In reflecting on my reading this year I was surprised to see how many theology and contemplative titles I read.

This reflects my concern, like many others, about the state of religion, in my case Christianity, in the 21st. Century. It’s not good. Time for a major overhaul.

If I were to re-write my credo today–the equivalent of a master’s thesis–it would be different from what I wrote in seminary years ago.

The world is changing, and so am I, and this demands that faith adjust to this new reality.

But I also read history, novels, science, and social and political commentary. Here’s an edited list:

The Wizard and the Prophet, Charles C. Mann. Non-fiction. I began the year reading the excellent work of Charles C. Mann’s, The Wizard and the Prophet.
Mann looks at the environmental crisis and the challenge of providing enough food for everyone on earth—a huge undertaking.

He provides two lenses. One lens is the work of Norman Borlaug, the creator of the Green Revolution whose life is the template for Mann’s role definition of the Wizard.

The wizards believe science can overcome environmental challenges by introducing new methods of food production by utilizing synthetic, human-created solutions, for example. To them the future is unlimited if these solutions are employed.

The Prophets, of whom William Vogt as the founder of the modern environmental movement is the template, bang their heads in exasperation. The very inputs the wizards revere are the source of so much environmental degradation that today imperils life on earth, the prophets believe.

The prophets say costs of over-fertilization, habitat loss, watershed degradation, soil erosion and compaction, pesticide and antibiotic overuse, plus the destruction of rural communities are the results of wizards pushing the environment beyond its carrying capacity.

Mann remains non-committal as he traces this debate. He offers us a thoroughly readable biographical history of the work of these two men as he weaves the science of environmentalism and chemical, industrial-scale agriculture into his narrative.

It’s an informative, comprehensive, worthwhile read. Moreover, confronting the challenges this debate has amplified is now critical to our common future.

Love and Ruin, Paula McClain. Fiction. When Martha Gelhorn traveled to Madrid in 1937 to report on the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War, she met Ernest Hemingway. That meeting eventually brought them together in a loving, stormy relationship. This is a fictionalized tale of these two talented, creative people and their life together. It’s a worthwhile read.

Capitalism in America, Alan Greenspan and Adrian Wooldridge. Non-fiction. If you want to know what’s wrong with the global economy, and also want to wonder how these two ever achieved high levels of policy-making and economic analysis, this is the book for you. I write this sarcastically. They idolize disruptive innovation without ever considering the human costs, moral obligations we share for each other, or the future effects on the human community.

I suppose if you idolize unbridled innovation as the means to unbridled greed, little things like compassion and justice don’t matter. This kind of thinking is the practical result of unrestrained corporate capitalism and Ayn Rand social theory, and it has infected our politics and corporate boardrooms. It’s part of the reason we’re in the mess we’re in today.

Tangerine, Christine Mangan. Fiction. A Gothic novel set in Tangiers. The tale of two women and a rivalry between them that leads to diabolical manipulation and eventually death.

Victoria, Helen Rappaport. Non-fiction. This behind-the-scenes book accompanying the Masterpiece Theater series on young Queen Victoria is another diversion from the godawful daily news and political commentary that makes for a depressing daily dose of noise.

Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens. Fiction. This novel about a young girl growing up alone in the swamps of Carolina is story-telling at its best. It has become a runaway best-seller in adult fiction and the acclaim is well-deserved. A must read if you’re into fiction.

The Threat: How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump, Andrew G. McCabe. Non-fiction. Given the report by the Justice Department Inspector General about FBI sloppiness in seeking permission for surveillance of suspected criminal behavior long after this book was released, I had to re-assess this account of our national political dystopia. However, McCabe provides useful insight into how disinformation works in this media-frenzied age.

He writes, “The FBI press office would receive fictional scenarios from the right-wing news outlets; we would shoot them down; the news outlets were unable to go forward. Then the story would appear on some fringe, alt-right website without a byline. Once it was picked up by the blogosphere and on social media, an outlet like Sinclair would have to cover it which would enable Fox News to get on board and then Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham would talk about it for weeks.”

It’s an intentional disinformation strategy that continues to be employed, and it results in the undermining of truth.

Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive, Stephanie Land. Non-fiction. Lamb’s first person account of her struggle to overcome poverty and exploitation grabbed me and gnawed and gnawed. Life should not be this hard, this unfair, this unequal.

And yet, it is. The suffering poverty causes is invisible to all but those who live it.
Poverty brings stress. But poor people in stress don’t have time to assess their emotional state. They must survive.

Lamb, a single mom with a pre-school daughter puts it best, “Every single parent teetering on poverty does this. We love, we do. And the stress of it all, the exhaustion, leaves us hollowed. Scraped out. Ghosts of our former selves.”

Too many are being scraped and hollowed out in this land today, and justice demands a different future for all of them, and for those of us who care about our common future.
Lamb’s insight is too valuable to ignore.

The Paris Seamstress, Natasha Lester. Fiction. After reading heavy narratives like Lamb’s and McCabe’s I try to divert myself from the depressing reality with fiction. This fictionalized story of a seamstress active in the French Resistance during World War II is one of those diversions.

Well developed characters provide a readable, enjoyable diversion despite the wartime setting.
 A good read.

The First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill George Washington, Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch. Non-fiction. Meltzer and Mensch document the realities of the rag-tag army Washington was asked to develop into a fighting force against an overwhelmingly equipped and trained British army. The task belies the romantic myth that surrounds Washington in our history and 
makes one even more appreciative of his leadership in forming the nation.

I could feel the grit, the cold, and the hardness of life in that army while reading this account of a plot to kill Washington as he led the Continental Army against the British. Colonial America was anything but a romantic idyll.

In fact, there were many plots. Conspiracies abounded. And in this mix Washington was called upon to not only form an effective army and marshal rag-tag local militias lacking adequate funding and infrastructure, but to also contend with those conspiracies and loyalist plots to defeat him.

That he accomplished the task and met this challenge is amazing. It is captured with full emotional power in this history. Well worth the read.

Stuck: Why We Can’t or Won’t Move On, Anneli Rufus. Non-fiction. I started this book optimistically. I hoped it would offer insight into why people who want to move on from negative circumstances don’t, and how they can become unstuck.

Rufus provides some insight into addictive behaviors and critiques the disease theory of behavior as a too-easy explanation for why good people do bad things and harm themselves.

Then she quotes a Fox news commentator on addiction and the book immediately fell apart for me. Fox news is a corrosive, toxic purveyor of misinformation, falsehoods and conspiracies. It has become a prime source of addiction to false theories that keep people stuck in an unreal view of the world.
At this point in the book my trust was broken. I put it down. I saw no reason to continue reading an author whom I could not trust, even if I were to continue only to see what comes next.

The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully, Joan Chittister. Non-fiction. This is my second reading of Sister Joan’s helpful look at how aging need not be a downward spiral into infirmity, but can be a deepening, growing experience of coming into one’s own.

“Age is the moment we come to terms with ourselves. We begin to look inside ourselves. We begin to find more strength in the spirit than in the flesh,” she writes.

Aging is not a pathology.

“The truth is that this new state of life liberates in a way no other stage of growth can possibly do.”

I agree. I shall probably read this again. It keeps me on balance as I live into this new stage of being.

The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life, David Brooks. Non-fiction. This is the most influential book I read this year. Brooks is a conservative columnist for the New York Times and a writer with keen insight, with whom I do not always agree.

But that aside, Brooks offers a critique of our current social reality that is spot on. “I think that the rampant individualism of our current culture is a catastrophe,” he writes.

So do I.

Brooks calls for community-building conversations to look at possibilities, not problems. He calls for us to develop “thick relationships” through which we experience caring, responsible give-and-take to work together on creative, innovative possibilities.

He calls for a commitment to faith—not simply as a commitment to religion but as a commitment to “some loyalty outside the self.” To do less is to live as a person untethered, isolated, adrift and subject to the crushing waves of influence in a society that is more alienating than unifying, more unsettling than harmonizing and, ultimately, results in an uncommitted self that leaves no deep mark on the world.

Wounded Prophet: A Portrait of Henri J. M. Nouwen, Michael Ford. Non-fiction. This is another vintage book I read about the beloved priest who gained celebrity because people resonated with his compassionate understanding of our brokenness and offered perspective toward healing.

But he was, as he himself said, a wounded healer. Ford gives insight into this woundedness in a man who was a paradox to those who knew him and a saint to those who revered him.

Ford writes, “He preferred to be intimate from a distance.”

Ford recounts the words of Jean Vanier, one of the founders of L’Arche community, a residential care facility for persons with intellectual disabilities which Nouwen joined and resided. This insecurity may help us understand his compassion and outreach to wounded spirits.

In his eulogy Vanier said: “Sometimes I sensed in Henri the wounded heart of Christ, the anguish of Christ. For God is not a secure God up there telling everybody what to do, but a God in anguish, yearning for love; a God who is not understood, a God on whom people have put labels. Our God is a lover, a wounded lover. This is the mystery of Christ, the wounded lover.”

An Unspoken Hunger: Stories From the Field, Terry Tempest Williams. Non-fiction. Williams is one of my favorite naturalist writers.

That’s because of insights like this: “Writing becomes an act of compassion toward life, the life we so often refuse to see because if we look too closely or feel too deeply, there may be no end to our suffering. But words empower us, move us beyond our suffering, set us free.”

She is reflecting upon experiences from within her own culture and considering how that culture devalues persons who are disabled, intellectually challenged or otherwise viewed as not “normal.”

“We see them for who they are not, rather than for who they are,” she writes.

Williams always helps me to see the world more clearly and with deeper spiritual meaning than I might have otherwise overlooked.

A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold. Non-fiction. Leopold’s 1949 diary has been compared to Thoreau and Muir as a naturalist classic. His writing is considered one of the most influential ecological texts birthing the environmental movement. It stands alongside Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring as a catalyst for growing awareness of the place of humankind in the natural order, and the potential for destruction of the natural order because of careless human intervention.

The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature, David George Haskell. Non-fiction. For a year Haskell visited, observed and recorded his observations of a small patch of forest in the southern Appalachians near Sewanee, Tennessee. His writing probes deeply into the natural processes of the creatures he observes, many of them infinitesimally small. This is a fast-paced set of rolling insights, season-to-season, creature-to-creature.

It’s a book one could read again and again, and gain insight from each reading.

Silent Spring, Rachael Carson. Non-fiction. This classic kick-started the environmental movement, and among other things—and certainly not the least of them—it saved the American Bald Eagle from extinction.

By illustrating the toxic effects of DDT on the eagles’ reproductive capabilities, her writing was able to spur other scientists to look deeper and to finally correct the inaccurate information being conveyed by chemical companies that claimed the compound was harmless.

Carson rushed to finish the book as she was confronted with terminal breast cancer.

She wrote, “Most of us walk unseeing through the world, unaware of its beauties, its wonders, and the strange and sometimes terrible intensity of the lives that are being lived about us.”

Her commitment to the environment, her ability to write about science in a way that caught the attention of non-scientists, and her deep commitment to the world about us was her lasting gift to humanity.

She made us aware of the terrible intensity of the lives that are being lived about us.

The Mind of God: The Scientific Basis for a Rational World, Paul Davis. Non-fiction. I’m giving considerable thought these days to science and religion. I wanted to read physicist Davis’ views about the often presumed conflict between the two, a conflict he discusses looking at history, philosophy and scientific theories.

The underlying question for him: “Is there a route to knowledge—even ‘ultimate knowledge’—that lies outside the road of rational scientific inquiry and logical reasoning?”

After thorough review of many disciplines and key thinkers throughout history, he concludes, “But in the end a rational explanation for the world in the sense of a closed and complete system of logical truths is almost certainly impossible. We are barred from ultimate knowledge, from ultimate explanation, by the very rules of reasoning that prompt us to seek such an explanation in the first place.”

“If we wish to progress beyond, we have to embrace a different concept of ‘understanding’ from that of rational explanation,” he says. This insight runs counter to our secular age and is a challenge to a purely rationalist view of understanding deeper meaning in life.

It’s heavy reading, but challenging in a helpful, thought-provoking way.

The Man Who Sold America: Trump and the Unraveling of the American Story, Joy-Ann Reid. Non-fiction. The MSNBC host provides an overview of the Trump phenomenon by assessing how racial animus, economic inequality and media manipulation contribute to the present unraveling of the traditional narrative of American exceptionalism.

There’s much here to ponder. For example, her take on media manipulation: “Jeff Jarvis, a former journalist and media critic, who has worked for the Chicago Tribune, People magazine, and TV Guide believes that at a ‘tactical level, the fact that the news outlets all write a story every time Trump tweets is absurd. It’s an indication of how we’re [the media] being used.”

On economic justice: “That sense that everything about our society is unfair, and someone has to be blamed or made to pay is a breeding ground where fascism, nativism, and racism can fester.”

And on capitalism quoting Umair Haque, London-based author and management expert: “‘Capitalism is imploding into fascism, he wrote. ‘It is doing so at light speed with a vicious fury, and there’s no certainty that it’s going to stop before it burns the house down.’”

Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, Terry Tempest Williams. Non-fiction. In this meditative text Williams continues to bring her deep spiritual insight to us derived from her interactions with nature.

She delivers nuggets to savor:
Quoting Wangari Waigwa-Stone, a Kenyan friend: “I was raised under an African sky. Darkness was never something I was afraid of. The clarity, definition and profusion of stars became maps as to how one navigates at night. I always knew where I was by looking up.”

She continues, “Because we have forgotten our kinship with the land, our kinship with each other has become pale. We shy away from accountability and involvement. We choose to be occupied, which is quite different from being engaged. In America time is money. In Kenya, time is relationship. We look at investments differently.”

And a final reflection by Tempest-Williams: “If the desert is holy, it is because it is a forgotten place that allows us to remember the sacred. Perhaps that is why every pilgrimage to the desert is a pilgrimage to the self. There is no place to hide, and so we are found.”

Songs of America: Patriotism, Protest, and the Music That Made a Nation, Jon Meacham and Tim McGraw. Non-fiction. Meacham and McGraw present U.S. history through the music that resonated with the ebbs and flows of significant events. They concentrate on the positive tunes, less so the negative, hateful ones.

They write, “The capacity of music to reassure and to remind us is one of its cardinal virtues.”
Music reminds me of a life lived. The music of childhood, of teen years, of young adulthood. It becomes a record of accumulated experience. It reminds me of where I come from and what was meaningful at the time. It informs and gives shape to those past life experiences.

They quote scholar and historian Craig Werner who says, “Music doesn’t create movements, but if a movement exists, it can power and drive that movement.”

Music has helped to drive the movements that made us a better society and called us to become more just and inclusive.

I wonder what that says about our current musical potpourri? And I have no idea.

The Mosquito: A Human History of our Deadliest Predator, Timothy C. Wineguard. Non-fiction. This is the second most influential book I read this year. It’s a superb, sweeping history of how malaria-carrying mosquitos have affected life on earth for millions of years.

Wineguard makes this breath-taking claim: “The mosquito has killed more people than any other cause of death in human history. Statistical extrapolation situates mosquito inflicted deaths approaching half of all humans that have ever lived.

In plain numbers the mosquito has dispatched an estimated 52 billion people from a total of 108 billion through our relatively brief 200,000-year existence.”

Wineguard writes that fossil evidence shows that a form of the malaria parasite, which made its first appearance in birds 130 million years ago, shows up in our human ancestors as early as 6 to 8 million years ago.

Throughout history mosquito-borne diseases have claimed more lives than combat. Wineguard cites historian J.R. McNeill who writes that in the American revolution the British were defeated in Yorktown in part because their forces were more susceptible to malaria than were the American troops, many of whom had developed partial immunity.

“The balance tipped because Britain’s grand strategy committed a larger proportion of the army to malarial (and yellow fever) zones,” Wineguard claims.

Unfortunately, we humans have a short attention span and seem to forget the impact of mosquito borne diseases and neglect them. This only makes conditions worse. The malaria parasite is aggressive and adaptable, able to adjust to changing climate, medications, and other preventive measures. We neglect it at our peril.

Currently four billion people in 108 countries around the world are at risk from mosquito-borne diseases, says Winguard.

He provides a powerful case for continuing to combat these diseases in a significant, important book.

The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen. Non-fiction. Another book from the distant past that has become a classic for those seeking a path toward inner understanding of life’s purpose. Mattiessen wrote the book as a diary derived from his participation with a biologist seeking to document the behavior of rarely studied Himalayan blue sheep, a search motivated by the fact that the world is changing drastically because of human intervention and these goats may not survive.

They also hoped to glimpse the rare and endangered snow leopard. For Matthiessen the journey was also a spiritual quest. A practitioner of Zen Buddhism, he charts is inner reflections as well as the outer progress of the search for the elusive creatures he is looking for.

One observation lodged in my memory, and it seems compatible with physicist Paul Davis cited earlier: “The mystical perception (which is only mystical if reality is limited to what can be measured by the intellect and senses) is remarkably consistent in all ages and places, East and West, a point that has not been ignored by modern science. The physicist seeks to understand reality, while the mystic is trying to experience it directly.”

The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist, Richard P. Feyman. Non-fiction. This is a collection of three lectures Feyman delivered at UC Berkley in the 1998.

His most notable comment for me is his observation that scientific knowledge is statements of varying degrees of certainty. “Some of them are most unsure; some of them are nearly sure; but none is absolutely certain. Scientists are used to this. We know that it is consistent to be able to live and not know,” he says.

I wish some who are absolutely certain about religious claims, for example, displayed a bit less certainty and were a lot more comfortable living with varying degrees of certainty and understanding.

I think we might be better served to be a bit more humble and comfortable with the unfolding creation and our evolving knowledge of it.

Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth, Rachel Maddow. Non-fiction. Midway through her expose’ of the oil and gas industry, Maddow makes this observation: “Minimizing damage done to the environment and the local human population has never been a critical variable in the oil and gas equation.”

My response is, exactly.

Maddow documents the way the industry operates by looking at the efforts of Oklahoma-based Chesapeake Energy to create a market for natural gas through fracking and how Exxon-Mobil managed its relationship with Vladimir Putin throughout the U.S. campaign to sanction the country because of its human rights abuses and interference in governance in various parts of the world.

It’s not a pretty story but Maddow tells it with wit and skill.

Having grown up in an oil field family, (my stepfather was an oilfield roustabout known as a “roughneck”) much of Maddow’s severe critique rings true to me.

My maternal grandparents lost a toddler due to oil company carelessness by failing to repair a leaking natural gas pipeline running along a dirt road by their farm,/ The child laid down in the cool escaping gas and was asphyxiated.  But no admission of negligence was ever forthcoming. My stepfather lost co-workers when wells blew out and caught fire. It’s a rough business, as Maddow documents through interviews, statistics and documents.

She also makes a strong case demonstrating how oil revenues fail to improve the lives of the poorest citizens of oil-rich developing nations. When authoritarian dictators can make deals with the Exxon-Mobils of the world without transparency, and Exxon-Mobil hides behind its claim that it is within the law–regardless of the consequences which means absent any moral obligation to the people–oil revenue becomes a resource curse.

These revenues are not distributed through the economy of such states, they are held by the political elites, especially by authoritarian dictators, and create even worse poverty and inequality.

Maddow provides a scathing indictment of big oil and gas, and makes a clear case not only for moving beyond fossil fuels, but also for transparency to prevent corrupt behavior and to spread the wealth.

The Dutch House, Ann Patchett. Fiction. The Dutch house is a base for a family as it disintegrates and leaves two siblings to fend for themselves upon their wealthy father’s death. This character study is interesting but I did not find it particularly compelling reading. Sort of ho-hum, I’m sorry to say.

Edison, Edmund Morris. Non-fiction. A lively biography of the great inventor by a great biographer. The last of Morris’ books before his death this year. Edison was an enigmatic character, apparently unable to contain his energy or his curiosity.

We take for granted what Edison dreamed up, prototyped and turned into reality. Such genius and perseverance are almost beyond our ability to fully comprehend.

Morris begins his narrative with the mature Edison after a lifetime of successful inventions, and multiple failed ones. He works backwards, decade by decade in a retrogressive look as Edison developed emotionally, in business acumen, and in scientific knowledge.

I found the book continually engaging and enlightening.

American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race, Douglas Brinkley. Non-fiction. The Cold War created the conditions for a race to the moon which, despite the Cuban missile crisis and the potential for real war, became the proxy for armed conflict.

When the USSR successfully launched Sputnik, the first earth-orbiting satellite, the U.S. had to play catch up and it did so relatively quickly. But the public relations campaign escalated as President Kennedy saw value in putting a person on the moon (in those days it was assumed to be a man on the moon), and in framing the effort as a peaceful exploration of space.

Beyond the campaign, however, was the reality of nuclear warheads placed on the increasingly sophisticated intercontinental ballistic missiles which expatriate German scientists in both the USA and USSR were perfecting.

Brinkley documents in helpful detail how the Nazi collaborators were appropriated by both, escaping moral responsibility for their actions supporting genocide. He’s particularly clear about how we should remember Werner von Braun, the most famous rocketeer in service to the U.S.

The moonshot a showcase for U.S. global prestige and became the foundation for domestic social programs.

After the assassination of President Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson said, “Space was the platform from which the social revolution of the 1960s was launched. “If we could send a man to the moon, we knew we should be able to send a poor boy to school and to provide decent medical care for the aged.”

The race, however, wasn’t as competitive as either the US or the USSR claimed. The US had superiority for much of the era.

When Kennedy proposed to Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev that the two nations cooperate on a peaceful moonshot Kruschev declined.

He later explained why to his son. “If we cooperate, it will mean opening up our rocket program to them. We have only two hundred missiles, but they think we have many more.”

Brinkley says Kruschev worried that Kennedy might launch a first ICBM strike if the disparity were revealed. “So when they say we have something to hide…?” Kruschev trailed off as he explained to his son Sergei. “It’s just the opposite. We have nothing. And we must hide it.”

The book is a thorough and insightful history of a time when the threats were real, and Kennedy, and later Johnson, led with vision.

The Oral and the Written Gospel: The Hermeneutics of Speaking and Writing in the Synoptic Tradition, Mark, Paul, and Q, Werner H. Kelber. Non-fiction. Written in 1997, Kelber along with Walter J. Ong, S.J., pioneered the study of orality and how the medium differs from textual communication. This is a major contribution not only to biblical scholarship, but to communication theory.

Kelber writes, “The oral medium, in which words are managed from mouth to ear, handles information differently from the textual medium which links the eye to visible but silent letter on the page.”

This insight is one of the most valuable contributions of Kelber’s work, although his discussion of how we understand the biblical text and how the author of the gospel of Mark and the Q manuscript, which scholars believe was a significant secondary text added to Mark’s account, illustrates the tension between orality and textuality.

Kelber also examines how Paul, fundamentally an oral communicator, appropriated letters to the new Christian communities he started as a way to communicate.

Kelber’s writing is technical and academic. He never uses a simple word when a more complex one can be substituted. So, it’s a slow go.

But the insight he provides is stellar.

In the digital age we too easily accept the addictive appeal of screens to convey content without full awareness of how digital media affect us in more ways than we can count.

These media affect how we view authority, project ourselves into conversations, participate in virtual “communities,” are alienated from interpersonal relationships and communal experiences, (we are often “alone together” in Shirley Turkel’s words), and they affect our thinking, emotions, understanding and perceptions.

In what may be his greatest contribution at the contrasts between orality and textuality Kelber writes, “Now most of us know that a new medium stores and refracts information in ways that will deeply influence the state of human consciousness.”

The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe, Richard Rohr. Non-fiction. I have become a disciple of Richard Rohr because he is the most cogent contemporary theologian writing about faith in our time. His project to reconstitute Christian faith for the 21st Century is no small undertaking.

But it’s clear that such an undertaking is absolutely necessary if the faith is to survive.

Much of what has evolved as traditional Christian faith is now under question. Perhaps it is more correct say it is no longer questioned, it is being abandoned in a steady matrix of declining participation, attraction and identification.

Rohr writes, “I suspect that Western individualism has done more than any other single factor to anesthetize and even euthanize the power of the Gospel.”

“Unless religion leads us on a path to both depth and honesty, much religion is actually quite dangerous to the soul and to society,” Rohr says.

The corrective is extensive work of reclamation, not merely to be attractive, nor to increase attendance in worship, nor to be relevant with gimmicky tactics.

“Humanity now needs a Jesus who is historical, relevant for real life, physical and concrete like we are.”

The faith he is proposing to reconstitute is one in which:

  • we are responsible to each other in a corporate way and not merely as individuals adhering to personal piety;
  • that recognizes that putting the teachings of Jesus into action becomes more important than esoteric beliefs that divide us into tribal disputes and exclusive behavior;
  • that we see God in everything rather than apart from us;
  • that we affirm that Creation is good and religion is not a personal ticket out of an evil world and into heaven but an affirmation that we are challenged to find the goodness that is already structured into the world and affirm it.

In his view, through God’s gracious Creation we have already entered into heaven, and if we accept this as reality we can see things in a transcendent, whole and healing way now.

He proposes to seek an understanding of the early faith prior to the Council of Nicea and six other historic councils convened or presided over by emperors. This is a return to “radical traditionalism,” the faith as taught by Jesus when it did not enjoy the sanction of the state and was a community often under duress, seeking to follow The Way, as both Jesus and Paul called the path of faithful discipleship.

That path has never been an easy one. “The church was meant to be an alternative society in the grip of an altogether different story line,” Rohr writes.

The culture of consumption, individualism, highly partisan politics, angry culture wars and defense of white privilege is collapsing on itself and threatening to destroy life on the planet. The church ought not to be identified with this storyline.

Rohr is proposing an alternative, and it is urgently needed at this moment in history.

Being Christian in the Twenty-first Century, Sam Gould. Non-fiction. Gould is a professor, layperson schooled in theology, and an active, experienced church person. He is not a professional theologian. Thus, he writes for a lay audience from a studied background as an academic who is steeped in theology and religious history. But he does not venture into the esoteric abstractions that often are the product of professional theologians and philosophers.

Early on in this book Gould quotes Brian McLaren when he asks, “What would it mean for Christians to rediscover their faith not as a problematic system of beliefs but as a just and generous way of life, rooted in contemplation, and expressed in compassion?”

Herein is contained the problem of faith in the 21st. Century. To put it simply, it is a choice between creedal beliefs or action informed by the teachings of Jesus.

Gould, as Richard Rohr reviewed above, says that the door is open for a deep review of the faith revising the orthodoxy developed in the early fourth century. It’s a re-thinking that’s long overdue, and it’s happening seemingly spontaneously in many places without much support from the institutional religious structures which are under stress and are focused on self-preservation.

Orthodoxy takes form in biblical literalism, the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, the fall from grace and original sin, among others. None of which are relevant to 21st. Century life, and many of which are obstacles to belief.

Gould writes that these are not only traps for post-modern skeptics, they unfairly box in the stories ancient people told as they understood their own life circumstances based on existing knowledge.

Biblical stories of miraculous healing were told in societies in which disease theory was unknown and metaphorical storytelling was how life was interpreted and reality was understood.

“Scripture is influenced by the era in which it was written, the breadth of knowledge available in that era, and the cultural norms of the period,” writes Gould.

Thus, to impose 21st. Century knowledge on these interpretations from the past is to do damage to the Scriptures by reading them factually and literally. John’s gospel, for example, is steeped in metaphor and to read it otherwise is “a fool’s errand,” says Gould.

The keystone of the new theological perception is to comprehend the life of Jesus and attempt to live into the teachings he propounded, rather than measure conviction by biblical literalism and creeds formed under imperial sanction which diverted Christians from acting like Jesus to adjudging what they believed about him. The diversion has continued through the centuries.

Gould concludes that “it is the life of Jesus that gives us the concrete knowledge of the human dimension of God. It is also this human part of God that resides in our depths, challenging us to ever-higher levels of humaneness and to a life of fullness in God.”

This, Gould says, is the answer to the question posed by McLaren, and the way forward to preserve the faith.

2 Responses to “A Year of Reading”

  1. Margaret Novak December 26, 2019 at 6:51 pm #

    I’m just gonna take this post to the library and order all but that one with Fox News in its bibliography.

Leave a Reply:

Gravatar Image