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Posts Tagged ‘American history’

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 picked up The Life You Save May Be Your Own: an American Pilgrimage by Paul Elie, at the Five Colleges Book Sale two springs ago. This fall after reading The Seven Storey Mountain,  it struck me as time to dig into it. Elie describes the work of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, and and Walker Percy, and their lives as thinkers and writers, as one “narrative of a pilgrimage, a journey in which art, life, and religious faith converge.”  He describes pilgrimage as “a journey undertaken in the light of a story . . . . The pilgrim seeks not only to confirm the experience of others firsthand but to be changed by the experience.”

It’s taken me a month (in part because I’ve had less time to read) to get through this book but I’m glad to have read it. The slow going is because it’s a dense mix of criticism, biography, and exposition of the literary philosophy and faith of these four writers. The way their lives intersected is fascinating, as is the ways their work addresses belief by inviting readers into their experiences, imagined or real. Elie’s thorough exploration of what each of the four were trying to say about God and about the human capacity to find God is both deeply encouraging and somewhat sad, given the fact that he concludes, “We are all skeptics now, believer and unbeliever alike. There is no one true faith, evident at all times and places.”

It’s going to take a while to digest this book, and it’s left me with an urge to read more — more Merton, more of O’Connor’s stories and essays, to explore Dorothy Day’s writing which I am not familiar with, to read more than The Moviegoer, which is all I’ve read of Percy’s work, and to revisit some of what these writers read as well, which Elie goes into in depth. But my initial thought is that they are still being discussed and written about and studied and examined (Elie himself just wrote about The Moviegoer again in the New Yorker this year), because they each in their way offer paths for readers to follow, questions to ask, and entry points to engage with the one true faith — faith in man’s potential to encounter belief on man’s terms and in doing so, find God.

If that sounds heretical — obviously the phrase “the one true faith” recalls very deliberately the Roman Catholic faith that Day, Merton, O’Connor, and Percy shared — think about the nature of faith. It’s relational. You can’t have faith if there is no God to seek and you can’t have faith if there are no people to find God. These four writers took an ancient and still in their time very traditional and mediated religious belief, one that required people for the most part of know God through the hierarchy of the church with its patriarchy and its prescriptions for how ordinary people should act and think and relate to God and they blew it wide open. Day said that we could know God through radical love for each other, particularly the poor. Merton said we could know God by using our own minds, through contemplation. Percy and O’Connor both said we could know God by entering another’s story, and viewing it from inside but through the lens of our own understanding as well. Merton and Day felt this as well, and wrote to each other about the fiction they read.

All four of them said we could know God by living, and reflecting on our experiences, seeking and trying to understand. I don’t think that has changed, even if fewer people may put it that way today. Even in a world where “the Church” is worthy of our skepticism — whether the Catholic church for its abuse and coverup, or the Evangelical church which claims to promote life while embracing policies that destroy lives — most people I know are still trying to seek and understand, even if they aren’t necessarily naming what they seek “God.”

Anyway, whether you’re interested in faith or social movements, fiction or history, culture or criticism, this is a thought provoking and substantial read.

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One of the joys of cataloging is that I see books as they come in that I might not otherwise notice. Sargent’s Women by Donna Lucey was on one of my carts in the late fall and I was excited to read it. One of my favorite places is the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and one of the four women Lucey writes about in this book is Gardner. I started reading Sargent’s Women after visiting the museum last weekend and hearing a docent talk about some of Sargent’s work, including his famous portrait of Gardner.

The three other Sargent portraits Lucey writes about are of Elsie Palmer, Elizabeth Chanler Chapman, and Sally Fairchild, although that chapter is primarily about Sally’s unconventional sister, Lucia Fairchild Fuller. Each woman’s story is interesting in its way. Fuller seemed the most compelling to me, not only because she came to live in New Hampshire near Cornish, where an arts colony thrived in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but also because she overcame illness and adversity to support her family with her own art (she became a renowned miniaturist ).

If there’s a common thread between these women it’s their status — all were wealthy, although Fuller fell on hard times because her husband was an entitled jerk and neither he nor his family cared to support Fuller and their children. All four women moved in rarified circles, where Sargent worked. Gardner was the only one who really did what she wanted in life, and enjoyed the support of those closest to her for the most part. These families seemed to all be pretty awful to each other, too, and it’s not just a matter of men ruling over women’s lives, although they did that plenty. There were mothers, sisters, and aunts interfering as well.

The four women are interesting to read about, in their way. I would have liked to know more about Sargent himself, although that’s not the point of this book. Sargent’s Women is interesting, and you could dip into a chapter, set it aside, and come back later to read about another woman and her portrait. It’s always intriguing to look at the lives of women mostly forgotten to history, even very privileged women, and to understand a little about the context in which an artist painted. This book, like the paintings of these women, gives us a glimpse into a world most of us can’t imagine.

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