Archive for April, 2020

Just about a year ago I attended the Association of College & Research Libraries conference in Cleveland and learned, at a free breakfast about using online sources sponsored by a vendor, about A. Philip Randolph. Prior to that, I’d never heard of him, even though he was a significant figure in American history, a labor leader, publisher who founded an important literary and political journal (The Messenger), and major organizer of the March on Washington. Martin Luther King, Jr., honored Randolph as “truly the Dean of Negro leaders.”  We should all question why American history books tend to leave Randolph out (spoiler alert: besides being black, he was a socialist).

The book I finished last night is by another major figure in American history who most of you won’t have heard of: Howard Thurman. He was ten years younger than Randolph, and also became an advisor to MLK. Thurman was a pastor, a professor of religion at several prominent universities, and an influential thinker and speaker.

Jesus and the Disinherited, one of Thurman’s best known books, is also one of The Computer Scientist’s favorite books, and our son also recommended it to me. A few weeks ago, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry quoted from it during his Easter sermon, and that reminded me that I had been meaning to read it. It’s taken me since Easter week to finish, even though it’s a short book. Partially because mid-June is looming (when my master’s dissertation is due), but mainly because it’s an intellectually and spiritually challenging book.

Thurman is very clear; that’s not the hard part. The hard part is the truths the reader has to face. Such as: “The basic fact is that Christianity as it was born in the mind of this Jewish teacher and thinker appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed. That it became, through the intervening years, a religion of the powerful and dominant, used sometimes as an instrument of oppression, must not tempt us into believing that it was thus in the mind and life of Jesus. . . . For years it has been a part of my own quest so to understand the religion of Jesus that interest in his way of life could be developed and sustained by intelligent men and women who were at the same time victimized by the Christian Church’s betrayal of his faith.”

The church had become a tool of oppression, one that perpetuated (and indeed still does in some places — maybe in all places) institutionalized racism, one that offered little to the poor beyond words, one that did not practice what it taught. And yet, Thurman describes a “new courage, fearlessness, and power” that comes from someone knowing they are “a child of God.” That is difficult stuff, all of it. That the church failed the disinherited, and yet, God worked anyway. That Thurman was faithful — so many were faithful — in spite of the church. That he then dedicated his life to helping others regain their own faith.

It gets harder. Thurman addresses fear, deception, and hate before closing with the very difficult work of love, about which he says, “It is the act of inner authority, well within reach of everyone . . . . merely preaching love of one’s enemies or exhortations — however high and holy — cannot, in the last analysis, accomplish this result. At the center of the attitude is a core of painstaking discipline . . . .” If you’ve ever tried to love your “enemy” — or just someone who really, really bugs you, this will ring painfully true.

I really can’t do this book justice in a few paragraphs. You should read it. Just be prepared to read slowly. It’s a good book for these weird times, because even though it’s hard, Thurman saw that real fellowship, based on equity and the kind of just love that “is a common sharing of mutual worth and value” is the only way forward. And it seems to me that’s what we need, in order to pull ourselves out of the mire we find ourselves in.


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I ordered Dwellers in the House of the Lord from my independent bookstore when they closed to the public. Longtime readers of bookconscious know I’ve written about Wes McNair‘s poems and nonfiction a number of times over the years, starting with a post during National Poetry Month in 2008, and even reviewed one of his books for the Mindful Reader column. So when I saw that he had a new book-length poem out, I was excited. It’s a short book, and I’d been saving it for Easter, because the book jacket notes “his poetic gaze guides us towards patience and perseverance, the belief that compassion in the face of confusion is the only path forward. Dwellers in the House of the Lord is a thoughtful assessment of the values that shape us at home and across the nation, and a timely poem that is, in the end, a story of love and reconciliation.”

I don’t usually quote book jackets, but that really sums it up pretty well. As he does so well, McNair tells a story in this poem, that of Aimee, his younger sister. While the poem revisits a few key moments in their childhoods, much of it dwells in their more recent lives. Aimee is married to Mike, a man who has in common with her a painful upbringing and a failed first marriage. He runs a gun shop out of their rural Virginia home. Aimee struggles to live with him, finding solace in a church that soon grows into a megachurch. McNair watches warily from Maine. And along comes 2016, and seismic shifts in the story and the country.

What makes this such an exquisite book is the deeply empathetic, soulful vulnerability which carries the narrative forward. McNair doesn’t just see details like “the new cat with a long/white sock and a short white sock,” he sees heart, not only in his sister but in his brother-in-law. One of the tenderest passages describes a visit Mike makes to McNair in Maine:

“But I know another Mike. Arriving without

family at our camp in Maine for an overnight

after visiting his immigrant relatives in Claremont,

this Mike offers us a jar of his homemade Polish

jam and a larger one of preserved fish. Lacking

his rifle, he is awed by the moose we see foraging

across the pond, and in the twilight that gathers

around our screen porch, he tell us about my sister’s

cat, how it can’t get enough of her and follows her all

over the house for the chance to lie in her lap.

In this way, having long since submerged the feeling

life that confuses him, Mike confesses his love.”

McNair goes on to explain his own confusion — vulnerability is a hallmark of his work and it’s fully present in this one. And to trace the trajectory of his sister’s further suffering, but also the small joys they share, the pleasure he takes in spending time with his nieces, the unpredictable nature of reconciliation and even, possibly, redemption, the mystery of his sister’s faith, which he doesn’t share. Even when he must describe suffering, hypocrisy, meanness, McNair is generous and empathetic.

What a story for this Easter, this moment in history, this point in our divided nation and world. Say yes to poetry, to tenderness, to independent publishing, to the triumph of love over hate. Read this book!

Update: you can hear McNair read from the book, in a virtual event for Gibson’s Bookstore, here.


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I’ve been reading two books — War and Peace, as part of the #Tolstoytogether read led by A Public Space — and The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography, by Alan Jacobs.  This morning I finished the latter.

It’s a book I treated myself to at Yale Divinity School bookstore when I was there in February for our son’s senior sermon. Quick plug for this awesome store — it’s an independent bookstore that began as a student coop, and although they are not shipping right now, you should shop there when they reopen! Bookconscious regulars may recall I also bought All About Love by bell hooks that day.

Alan Jacobs’ book is part of a series called Lives of Great Religious Books. I found it very interesting and clear — Jacobs cuts through what could be confusing historical and political context in addition to the theological background and vividly explains why in England, the Book of Common Prayer is more or less the same as it was in 1662. And why there are thousands of pages of alternative prayers and services in Common Worship, as well as many other common prayer books around the Anglican Communion, which makes our worship less likely to be common than I previously understood.

Interestingly, Jacobs also answered a question that occurred to me this Holy Week — on Thursday, the epistle reading in the lectionary was 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, in which Paul explains how Jesus instituted what we know now as the eucharist at the Last Supper. It struck me as I read Paul’s letter and the gospel reading that day that Jesus did not suggest priests had to mediate this for us. He simply said whenever we ate bread and drank wine we should do it in remembrance of him. I wondered how we got from there to here; something I’ve wondered as well as I’ve watched the various theological arguments about how to celebrate eucharist from a distance during COVID-19.

I read with great interest about Gregory Dix and his book The Shape of Liturgy, which Jacobs notes takes about 600 (of 750) pages in “tracing the developments of the Eucharistic liturgy from the earliest records to the late Middle Ages.” It sounds like the answers to my question are there, although I’m not sure I’m up for a 750 word explanation! I also found the sections on the impact of WWI on the arguments in favor of prayer book revision and the influence of the Church of South India and resulting efforts to achieve inculturation very interesting.

A wonderful read, and I look forward to finding more of Jacobs’ books, particularly since he appears to have written one on reading!

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