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Posts Tagged ‘Jesus’

I’ve been reading, just haven’t had time to blog. We’ve been spending time with our son and granddog who are moving to the midwest next week. While the granddog was staying with us, I read Ben Hopkins’ Cathedral a couple of weeks ago. It is about a German town and its cathedral in the 1200s. I actually wish it there had been more about the cathedral and less about murder and misogyny. The most interesting thing about this book was how tumultuous the times were, and how different characters and their families rode out their changing fortunes. But mostly it was about how greed for power and wealth permeated church and state as well as commerce. it’s a miracle the church survived as a religious institution given how corrupt and political it was. Maybe all the political maneuvering and prioritizing of profits and senseless violence in this book was just a little too much right now.

Then I read the second S J Bennett Queen Elizabeth mystery, All the Queen’s Men, which has a much better British title: A Three Dog Problem. I enjoyed the first of these, The Windsor Knot, and it seemed like the latest would be a good read for the UK’s Jubilee week, and I was in the mood for something lighter after Cathedral. But, I found the sequel harder to follow — the mystery just didn’t seem as plausible to me — and I’m less comfortable with a white author writing about a Black woman’s perspective (the Queen’s Assistant Private Secretary, Rozie Oshodi) after spending a year in a social justice class. I enjoyed the parts that imagined what the Queen was thinking, but I didn’t find it as funny as the first one. That said, the scenes with the dogs are fun, and I enjoy Bennett’s portrayal of the affection between the Queen and Prince Philip.

One read I very much enjoyed was The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak. Bookconscious readers know I read another of Shafak’s novels, Honour, early in the pandemic. I liked it a lot, and was happy to find another book by Shafak in the library’s eBook app. The Island of Missing Trees, like Honour, deals with the lives of immigrants in London. The central characters are Kostas, a Greek Cypriot man, Defne, his recently deceased Turkish Cypriot wife, their daughter Ada, and the fig tree that grows in their garden in London. Yes, the fig tree is a main character.

Kostas is a prominent environmental scientist, Ada his teenage daughter. When the novel opens they’ve been struggling to communicate in the aftermath of Defne’s death. It’s almost the winter break at school when Ada has an embarrassing incident in class, precipitated by thinking about an assignment requiring her to speak to an older relative, something she doesn’t have. At home, she finds her father outside as a storm approaches, burying the fig tree to keep it safe from the harsh winter weather.

With the storm comes an unexpected visitor, her mother’s sister, Meryem. With her superstitions, her suitcase full of colorful clothes she’s never worn, and her penchant for cooking many dishes at once, Meryem rubs Ada the wrong way. The teen tells this aunt she’s never met that she’ll never forgive her for not attending her mother’s funeral. Ada avoids Meryem as best she can, but curiosity — after all this is someone who knew her mother and father when they were young — overcomes antipathy. I found this very realistic.

Kostas and Defne’s story comes out in bits; the fig tree tells us that in real life stories are like that. It took a little getting used to the fact that the fig tree has a voice in this novel, as do other creatures. I wasn’t sure what to make of that at first, but having read books about plant sentience, it didn’t seem far fetched to me that the fig would be a reliable source of information. While Ada learns a little bit more about her parents from Meryem, the fig shares the story of Cyprus in 1974, history that was vague to me before, through the stories of young Kostas and Defne.

Island of Missing Trees is about the impossibility of shielding children from their parents’ pain, the damage to humanity and the natural world when colonialism and tribalism erupt into war, the struggle to heal from loss and the way culture can travel and adapt. Defne makes Kostas promise that their child will be British, which is to say, she will not be burdened by their past in Cyprus, but it’s not a promise that can be kept — the not telling is itself a kind of wound. Ada feels the loss of having no relatives, no opinion about the best kind of baklava, no idea that her parents were childhood sweethearts.

As the tree says towards the end of the book, “The voices of our motherlands never stop echoing in our minds. We carry them everywhere we go.” The fig is the connection to Cyprus for Kostas, and for Ada, who has never been, but tells her aunt she will travel there now that the door has been opened. Meryem asks which side she’ll visit, and Ada says “I’ll come to the island . . . . I just want to meet islanders, like myself.”

Shafak is careful not to make the ending unrealistically optimistic — yes, Defne was involved in the effort to heal the past by finding and identifying remains, helping families put their dead to rest, and helping Cypriots of different backgrounds share their stories. Yes, Ada’s generation doesn’t necessarily carry their parents’ prejudices forward. But there are many references to climate change — Shafak notes through those parts of the story that people are still finding ways to destroy communities, human and nonhuman.

Still, The Island of Missing Trees is a lovely and mostly hopeful book, a book about a father and daughter making peace with their grief together. Even though Defne fell victim to, as Kostas describes, “the past, the memories, the roots,” there is a sense that Ada will be able to move into the future stronger for having finally learned a little more about those things. I really enjoyed this novel.

Finally, I just this morning finished Thirst, by Amélie Nothomb. It’s a short novel told from the point of view of Jesus just before, during and after the crucifixion. This is not a religious book — one review called it “potentially heretical” and Nothomb has Jesus correct a few things in the Gospels that he says were misreported or misrepresented — but rather a literary take on what Jesus might have felt and thought. From chiding the beloved disciple: “John, I love you very much. But that does not mean you can go around spouting nonsense.” To riffing on ordinary human pleasures: “I’ve always loved the feeling of being sheltered the moment it starts raining harder and harder, it’s a wonderful sensation.” And appreciating his human parents: “Joseph was good by nature . . . . My mother, too, is a far better person than I am,” as well as the truly kind people he encounters, like Simon of Cyrene “If he’d just shown up on the street by chance and seen me staggering under the cross, I think he would have reacted exactly the same way: not pausing to think for even a second, he would have run up to help.”

It’s also an examination of what humanity is; Jesus speculates that “The entire human condition can be summed up like that: it could be worse.” And thirst is a central preoccupation of his, as the title implies, and he returns to the subject throughout the book, musing at one point, “A dry throat imagines water as ecstasy, and the oasis is proof against waiting. He who drinks after crossing the desert never says, ‘It’s not all it’s cracked up to be.'” And from the cross, “From deep within a desire wells up, the desire that most resembles me, my pet craving, my secret weapon, my true identity, the thing that has made me love life and makes me love it still:

‘I thirst.'”

This was an interesting read, if you’re open to a fictional retelling of Jesus’s life.

It’s lovely to have had so many interesting things to read lately.

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I read Black, Gay, British, Christian, Queer: The Church and the Famine of Grace by Father Jarel Robinson-Brown for the Social Justice in the Anglican Tradition class I am taking online at EDS at Union with the Computer Scientist, the same class for which I read Song In a Weary Throat and books by James Cone, Kelly Brown Douglas, Duke Kwon and Gregory Thompson, Stephanie Spellers and Liz Theoharris last fall. Which is to say, this isn’t the first book I’ve read about the ways the Church has missed and is missing the mark.

Also, when we lived in Georgia, I volunteered with an organization working to help people living with HIV in our county, and one reason some of the folks in the group gave for the higher than average infection rate among African Americans was that the Black church’s homophobia caused many people to hide their sexual orientation, which can lead to unsafe sex. Robinson-Brown critiques the Black church and quotes a fellow scholar, Anthony Reddie, who says that the Black church is “studiously wedded to White Euro-American fundamentalism.”

But Robinson-Brown also notes:

“It is the worship of the God of the White imagination that has led to the famine of grace in the Church. A White God who sends a White Jesus into a White world to save White people through a White church is a God whose interest is reserved only for the powerful and the comfortable, and who has no good news for the Black and Brown LGBTQ+ poor.” He goes on to say “While it has been busy telling LGBTQ+ people what to do with their desire and telling its Black members how to express their anger, it has lost its desire for the one thing that matters: God and God’s children.”

This is something Kelly Brown Douglas has lectured on in our course extensively.

Like Dean Douglas, and Howard Thurman, and James Cone, and and Pauli Murray, and many others, Robinson-Brown powerfully preaches in the final chapter of the book the true message of Jesus which was not one of power and privilege, nor of excluding people (even those his community felt were undesirable), but exactly the opposite. Jesus was radically inclusive in his ministry. So what has happened to the Church? How can followers of Jesus cause so much harm, and participate in and uphold racism and homophobia, deny women a role in ministry, etc.? Robinson-Brown’s diagnosis is the famine of grace in the subtitle of his book.

Lest you think this is a depressing topic and a book that simply spells out what’s wrong, let me share the simple, powerful message that Father Robinson-Brown builds from beginning to end in this book: it doesn’t have to be this way. He’s too good a writer for me to paraphrase, so in his own words:

“What is needed is an urgent prioritizing of a theology of grace that situates grace as the primacy of God’s love in every word we might say about the ‘other,’and that takes the crucified love of God at its word.”

and

“The demand on the White Church is quite simple: we are asking you to be more like Jesus, to let us breathe, to let us sit as equal kin at the table. It’s only difficult because if you’re honest, you do not want to give up your power and privilege.”

Yes. That is why racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, classism, and xenophobia exist. The people who have power and privilege (and as a white cis straight woman that includes me) have trouble giving it up. Not always because they don’t want to (plenty don’t want to) — the systems that make them privileged are designed to keep them that way. Which makes it hard even for people of good will — people who know grace and want to share it — to effectively change more than their own interactions with others. It’s like other kinds of reform — prison reform, police reform, education reform, etc. How can you reform what is inherently unbalanced, unjust, unfair, inequitable? Abolition may be the only way. I never understood that about policing until the beginning of the pandemic when I had a long in depth conversation with my two twenty-somethings and finally, finally, it was clear to me (you may recall that the elder suggested I read The End of Policing, which I wrote about here). Thirteenth and The New Jim Crow explain vividly why our criminal punishment system deserves to be abolished, not “reformed.”

And Black, Gay, British, Christian, Queer makes the case for the abolition of the Church, which is the establishment in England. Perhaps in the U.S. the Church has already lost more of its influence at the community level. Many people don’t consider any church a necessary part of their lives. That may be less true in the “bible belt.” And the Evangelical/White Nationalist iron grip on the Republican Party is a frightening and heretical strain that reminds me in some ways of what James Cone describes in The Cross and the Lynching Tree — church folk howling about critical race theory, stolen elections, mask mandates, or two summers ago, about BLM, are really just the latest iteration of the same church folk who justified slavery and lynching.

I don’t know how I feel about church abolition (of course I don’t — see above, I’m mostly privileged when it comes to church). I get that the church needs to be different than it is now. And it makes sense to me that following Jesus more closely is what it needs. I’m frustrated by the ways the Church causes harm or isn’t bold enough or makes excuses about not being “too political.” But I also belong to The Episcopal Church, which is trying to solve the famine of grace in many ways. In fact the EC recently took up as part of its formation a call to be A Church That Looks and Acts Like Jesus. I find that hopeful — I there is a better chance of the Church becoming grace-filled than of American democracy recovering or prison and police abolition taking hold. I don’t know how it will turn out, but I am glad to be in the course we are taking. We are of different ages, races, gender identities, sexualities, geographic and cultural origins, and backgrounds learning together about the Church, what it has been and done, and what it could be and do.

But I digress. The point of this post is to say, if you’re interested in the church, read this book.

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I’ve been intending to read more of Karen Armstrong for years. Longtime bookconscious readers will know I read and re-read Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life a few years ago. We have acquired a few of her other books over the years, but recently I turned to a Kindle version of St Paul: the Apostle We Love to Hate. I’m a member of what Presiding Bishop Michael Curry (yes, the guy who preached at Harry & Meghan’s wedding) calls “The Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement,” and as part of his work, Bishop Curry has challenged people to follow The Way of Love. One of the recent challenges related to this was to read Paul’s Letter to the Romans in the season of Epiphany (which runs from the Feast of the Epiphany, or Three Kings Day, on Jan. 6, to the last day before Lent, Shrove Tuesday, which this year, is on March 5).

Romans is tough going. Although I have a serious church history and scripture nerd in my house (yes, the Computer Scientist is a man of many talents), and my own personal seminarian to call on (the former Teen the Elder) I found myself looking for more context for this repetitive, rambling letter than seems to contradict itself, and at times, to contradict the entire notion of loving your neighbor as yourself. At a discussion group about Romans at church I got a taste of what Karen Armstrong talks about in her book, and also several people recommended it.

Now, I was raised Catholic and except for a few years in my late teens and early twenties, I’ve attended church pretty regularly my whole life. But I learned all kinds of things I never knew from this book. For example, Pauls’s second letter to the Corinthians is actually five letters, out of chronological order, and with a couple of passages he probably didn’t write stuck in (including the infamous cover your heads, ladies, and the women should be seen but not heard in church). Paul was the earliest writer in the Jesus movement, and he wrote his letters and did his work before there were any written gospels. He only took on a trade (probably tent making or leather working) when he hit the road, as a way to connect with people and to make money for his travels. He believed the “Parousia” or coming of Christ was imminent, and he never meant his writing to be read later, much less a couple thousand years after he wrote. In fact, much of his advice to the communities he wrote to was very specific to their issues and concerns, and wasn’t meant to be taken as general advice for Christians (who didn’t exist yet, anyway).

I knew bits of this, but hadn’t ever read it all in one place before, nor had such an erudite but accessible guide to Paul as Karen Armstrong. She admits that as a young writer, she was prepared to dislike him (her first book was also about Paul) but she came to admire him as she researched. Other things in the book were a complete surprise to me — she writes that the American scholar John Dominic Crossan surmises that the disciples left Jerusalem when Jesus was arrested and probably didn’t know what happened to him in the immediate aftermath, and reminds us that the passion accounts are “prophecy historicized” rather than actual history. The stories are so familiar to believers, and even to nonbelievers as a result of Western culture (even network TV showed Jesus Christ Superstar last Easter), that Crossan says “It is hard for us, I repeat, to bring our imagination down low enough to see the casual brutality with which he was probably taken and executed.” Armstrong notes that Paul, too, was probably killed brutally and without fanfare, as was the Roman empire’s specialty.

She reminds us that only seven of Paul’s letters were likely to have been written by him. And that his words, and his legacy, were mediated by various figures, from the author of Luke and Acts through Augustine and Martin Luther and various church figures over centuries. This I knew — and it is criticism that has been leveled at Armstrong herself. Mediation, of course, is impossible to avoid in human communication; we all make meaning out of what we take in, and are influenced by others’ frames and agendas. I’ll leave arguments about where Armstrong falls in the continuum of New Testament scholarship to others, but for me, this book was helpful. It reminded me that much of what we know about the first century Jesus Movement is uncertain, even that which we accept as gospel.

But this book also reminded me that the people who carried Jesus’ story to others then, and those who do now, are participants in a faith tradition that doesn’t need absolute historical facts and details. Exactly what Jesus did when and where and with whom isn’t really important, nor is what Paul said about it, nor how Martin Luther or others interpreted or misinterpreted what Paul said. What is important is that the transformative message of this strange, mysterious life, the life of a man at once a Galilean peasant and the Son of God, has endured down the ages in part because an imperfect man named Paul was called to make it his life’s work to tell people about it. Armstrong helps clarify that, and I recommend this book to anyone struggling to understand Paul a little bit more.

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