For The Someday Book

Erik Larson, Isaac’s Storm: A Man, A Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History, New York: Vintage Books, 1999, 323 pp.

Isaacs StormI loved Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City when I read it more than 10 years ago, and I have given it to at least a half-dozen other people who have loved it too. He has a way of mixing together historical reporting with narrative storytelling about a particular set of real-life characters that makes it feel like reading a novel. I was drawn to The Devil in the White City because I have always been fascinated by the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. I never dug deeper into Larson’s work because I was drawn more to the topic than the author, until one of those people to whom I had lent The Devil in the White City returned the favor by giving me Isaac’s Storm. I read the whole thing in two days, staying up until 2:00 a.m. because I couldn’t put it down.

Isaac’s Storm tells the story of the massive hurricane that destroyed Galveston, Texas in September 1900, particularly through the eyes of Isaac Cline, the chief weather bureau official in Galveston at the time. Larson follows a similar style to the one he used in The Devil in the White City, telling the story by laying out thick detail and behind the scenes portraits that point toward why things unfolded as they did. He begins by drawing a detailed picture of the city of Galveston at the time of the storm, especially its competition with Houston and its vision as an idyllic paradise for business or pleasure. He also offers an intricate accounting of the history, politics and embattled nature of the national weather bureau at the time. Weather bureau officials were terrified of making mistakes, eager to downplay danger, and in competition with each other for accurate predictions–without permission to use any words that implied a dangerous storm was afoot.

Larson then introduces us to several central characters, the people through whose eyes we will come to see this story. Isaac Cline is primary, along with his family, which includes his brother Joseph. Joseph and Isaac are estranged in the years after the hurricane. While there is no clear answer as to why, Larson offers some hints and ideas about the roots of the tension, including their disagreement about how they should be responding to the 1900 Galveston storm. We also meet several children who survived the storm (this is quickly evident, because their accounts would not be available otherwise), and several ship’s captains who rode out the storm as well.

The tension of the book is palpable, because we as readers know what the people in the story do not–that the hurricane is bearing down on them, and more than 6,000 people will lose their lives. As the story builds, Larson introduces us, with affection, to person after person, and each time you meet a new character you wonder if they will be one of the lucky ones who survive, or the many who perished. Larson tracks the individual choices–left or right, north or south, stay or go–that are the difference between life and death. Once the storm hit Galveston, I couldn’t stop reading until I knew who lived or died.

Isaac’s Storm was a great read for anyone who likes history, weather, science, survival or just a good story. I found it a fact-packed page-turner, and now I want to find more of Larson’s work again.

Chris Hedges, Losing Moses on the Freeway: The 10 Commandments in America, New York, Free Press, 2005, 206 pp.

This is the fourth in a series of four books about the Ten Commandments, which I purchased and read simultaneously, week by week, while I was preaching a sermon series on that topic. The sermons can be found here, June 22 through July 27. The rest of the book reviews will be posted sequentially here. 

Losing MosesThis was by far my favorite of all the Ten Commandments books I read for the sermon series. Chris Hedges is a powerful storyteller and critical thinker, and I enjoyed hearing his approach to the commandments.

Hedges approaches the commandments sideways, at an angle, in ways that make the connections sometimes less than obvious. The most memorable story, for me, came from his first chapter, where he told the story of his naive move into Boston’s Mission Hill with a heart for saving the neighborhood. As he found himself threatened and bullied by a group of young boys, he tried to hold on to hope and faith, but had to admit his failure, especially as his fear prompts him to respond with violence. It ends his relationship with the church, and shatters his faith.

It is knowledge of this darkness that alone makes faith possible. The church was my last refuge from God. In the shattering of that moral certitude I looked for forgiveness. Idols promise us power. God does not. Before God we all are powerless. We are all afraid. It is in this fear, this darkness, that I found God, even as I thought I was fleeing God. (36-37)

One of my favorite sideways approaches comes in a story Hedges tells about a private bar that attracts men who are immigrants. The bar is populated by women who make it their business to get the men to spend all their money there, with promises of love and words of affection. However, Hedges does not tie this story to the commandment about adultery, but to the one about lying.

These lies, the ones told in the bar, the ones told to us, create false communities. They weaken and destroy real communities. These false communities, which we must pay to enter, are a way to fight despair. We share this despair with these men. We share it with almost everyone around us, although we work hard to pretend it does not exist, this despair of living and dying, of not being the person we want to be, or what we want people to believe we are. (64)

Hedges offers one of the most nuanced and helpful accounts of what it means to “honor your mother and father” among all those I read. He grounds his analysis in the reality that our parents shape our lives, whether we want them to or not, by their action and inaction, presence or absence.

For to honor our parents is to honor our essence, the roots from which we sprung, and even the best parents have oppressive powers that must be broken. We must free ourselves from our parents to become fully formed individuals. The commandment to honor your parents is a commandment to honor yourself, honor the life force that created you, the good and the bad mingled within us, but not to honor abuse. (90)

I also appreciate the way Hedges connects the commandments about coveting not just to envy, but to greed, and, as is obvious if you know Hedges’ other work, his reflections on “thou shalt not kill” in circumstances of war.

As always, Hedges is a beautiful writer who tells stories that are compelling and evocative of the human condition. This time, he does so on the themes of the Ten Commandments, and Losing Moses on the Freeway provides reflections well worth reading.

Rachel S. Mikva, ed. Broken Tablets: Restoring the Ten Commandments and Ourselves, Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1999, 148 pp.

This is the third in a series of four books about the Ten Commandments, which I purchased and read simultaneously, week by week, while I was preaching a sermon series on that topic. The sermons can be found here, June 22 through July 27. The rest of the book reviews will be posted sequentially here. 

Broken TabletsThis anthology of reflections by some of the leading rabbis and Jewish scholars offered me a rich added perspective in my sermon series. It was compiled as a festschrift for Arnold Jacob Wolf, a leading Reform rabbi noted for his emphasis on peace and justice. However, the essays do not revolve around Wolf’s work, but around practical, justice-minded reflections on the Decalogue. Remember, the Jewish tradition divides the commandments differently from the Protestants (like Hauerwase & Willimon) and the Catholics (like Chittister)

Rabbi Mikva commences the reflection on each commandment with a few pages of commentary of her own, followed by a longer essay by another rabbi. All of the essays share a common attention to stories and rabbinic tales that shed light on interpretation, along with the Jewish scholarly pursuit of unanswered questions. It is always fascinating to me how different Jewish approaches, questions and even answers are from those methods used by Christian scholars.

For example, in her essay on the second commandment, Rabbi Mikva asks, “Is Judaism asserting itself as the one ‘true’ religion?” She answers thus:

It would be idolatrous to assert any human creation is the ‘one true religion.’ Judaism simply insists on faithfulness. A parable: A man who has to believe that his wife is the most beautiful woman in the world has no wife, for he is constantly looking at other women to be sure that none may be more beautiful. … The purpose of religion is not to learn what is good, but to learn to do what is good, not to disclose secrets but to achieve persons. This is the discipline of living in faithfulness. (19)

One of my favorite essays was by Rabbi Leonard Fein, and focused on the fifth commandment, to honor your father and mother. He raises the question of whether all parents deserve to be honored. We all know their flaws, and some parents can be quite terrible. He then posits not unconditional love for parents, but unconditional honor.

We honor our parents because it is they who gave us life. If they are loveable, we may love them. But whether or not they are loveable, we must honor them. (70)

I also appreciated the reflection by Rabbi Richard M. Levy on not stealing. He extends the prohibition against theft into a mandate for generosity.

Stealing is a serious crime in Jewish tradition. So is the sin of encouraging stealing by refusing to share the bounty God has temporarily entrusted to us. (108)

Because each essay was so tightly crafted and each argument so bound together, I found it difficult to pull excerpts or insights that directly informed my preaching, or to quote the rabbis, even at length. However, I know my thinking was deeply enriched and I found great joy in reading this volume.

Joan Chittister, The Ten Commandments: Laws of the Heart, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis books, 2006, 152 pp.

This is the second in a series of four books about the Ten Commandments, which I purchased and read simultaneously, week by week, while I was preaching a sermon series on that topic. The sermons can be found here, June 22 through July 27. The rest of the book reviews will be posted sequentially here. 

Laws of the HeartJoan Chittister’s subtitle to her book on the ten commandments suits her style and contribution. Chittister, as always, speaks to the issues of the heart and soul, looking at the commandments with an eye on the spiritual dimension and attention to the call for justice in the world.

In the introduction, she writes:

The Ten Commandments are laws of the heart, not laws of the commonwealth. They are laws that are intended to lead to the fullness of life, not simply to the well-ordered life. … The Ten Commandments are, then, an adventure in human growth. We are not so much convicted by them as we are to be transformed by them. (10-11)

Chapter by chapter, commandment by commandment, Chittister examines each in three ways: historically, examining what it meant in the context of early Judaism; in application, imagining how it applies to life today; and reflectively, proposing ways that we can reflect on what it means for each of us to follow the commandments today.

For example, in the first commandment, she explains that the ban on material images was a part of making God bigger than every before, because this Yahweh God was “more than matter, above matter, beyond matter.”(18) She then applies the commandment: “This is the commandment that decides the orientation of our whole lives. This one asks us who or what we are making God now.” (20) Finally, she provokes with a question:

Whatever it is that you give your life to is the shrine at which you adore. The question is, Is this a big enough god for anyone to spend a life on? (22)

I found this book among the most helpful I read in transforming the commandments from exhortative sermons of “Thou shalt not!” into probing questions about the depths of human relationships. Here are some examples:

The fourth commandment reminds us that we are not worlds unto ourselves. We all came from somebody somewhere and we owe them the gratitude that comes with those gifts, however limited they may at first sight be. It is the requirement of this commandment that saves us from the terminal disease of immediacy. This commandment demands we respect the past. (54-55)

“You shall not steal” has been reduced to mean no shoplifting, no pilfering, no pickpockets, no burglary, no petty theft. It has become the province of poor people, sick people, immature people. But the stealing the Decalogue really has in mind, is really concerned about, has actually become the sin of rich people, powerful people, people in a position to say, “take it or leave it” to those who seek a living wage or subsidized housing or medical benefits and pensions. (92)

If I had only one book of these four to recommend to preachers, Chittister’s would be the one. She helps unlock the fixed nature of the commandments and open them to new ways of illuminating our sins and our possibilities.

Stanley M. Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, The Truth about God: The Ten Commandments in Christian Life, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999, 144 pp.

This is the first in a series of four books about the Ten Commandments, which I purchased and read simultaneously, week by week, while I was preaching a sermon series on that topic. The sermons can be found here, June 22 through July 27. The rest of the book reviews will be posted sequentially here. 

Truth About GodI posted this on Facebook midway through this book:

I keep reading their (Hauerwas & Willimon’s) books, but I need to stop. For every compelling and enlightening sentence, there are two that make me want to throw it against the wall. There’s some good stuff in there, but it’s all so tangled up with garbage. The chapter on adultery was ridiculously bad and out of touch. Oh, the arrogance! The arrogance of these two!

This remains my assessment of the book as a whole.

First, some of the good stuff. Hauerwas and Willimon’s take on the Ten Commandments is that they are a central showcase for God’s saving work in the world. True to their Methodist roots, they see obedience to the commandments as a path toward sanctification, a response to God’s grace with a willingness to follow.

We live by the commandments as a way of worshiping the true God. When we thus worship the true God, we show forth to the world the sort of people God is able to produce. (17)

This makes the commandments not a generalized set of rules that apply to everyone, but a unique covenant initiated by God in relationship to the people.

God knows that Israel, left to its own devices in the wilderness, is prone to reestablish Pharoah’s rule in different forms. So the commandments are given as a basis for a radically alternative society that is counter to all that the empire demands. (27)

We don’t need God–we worship God. That is the first commandment, to stop attempting to get something out of God and instead to bend our lives toward God. (34)

Unfortunately, this interesting chapter quickly becomes a screed against scholars who question how this exclusionary God can hamper interfaith relationships, against a major denominational leader who questions Jesus’ divinity, and even (somehow) against parents who help their teenagers access birth control. As I said, for every good point, there are two that make me want to throw the book into a wall.

There were two main reasons I kept reading. First, Hauerwas and Willimon did detailed research that saved me a lot of work. Each chapter addresses one commandment, and they quote extensively from Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Luther and other historical theologians. It is helpful to read those commentaries without having to track them down separately. Second, there remained regular appearances of good and insightful observations, like these:

On “Thou Shall Not Kill”: They (the Religious Right) seize upon the Ten Commandments as a universal, general code of conduct for every thinking American and forget how exceptional the community is rendered by the Decalogue. That our society is so terribly violent is in great part the result of the church’s failure to be a community of nonviolence as a byproduct of our worship of the God of peace. (88-89)

On “Thou Shall Not Bear False Witness”: The church must be a testimony that the truth is known by people who have learned how to trust one another through sharing goods, committing one another to lifelong fidelity, the practice of nonviolence, who do these things because they know they are creatures of a gracious God who would have them worship him in truth. (123)

However, you must also put up with obnoxious, arrogant and clueless conclusions they draw. The chapter on adultery is especially heinous.

The only good Christian reason to get married is the conviction that you can live out your baptismal vocation better within marriage than without. Furthermore, we believe that love is the fruit of marriage, the result of our faithful commitment to one another rather than its cause. (98)

The term “planned parenthood” doesn’t quite fit how Christians ought to have children, for children are not our choice as much as they are God’s choice of us. (100)

You have never had good sex until you have had it with a Christian. (100)

However, it’s not limited to that one. They make gross generalizations about the misery of rich people and call out whole congregations for spoiling their children. Then you get this commentary on government, which somehow emerges from their commentary on lying.

There can be no freedom that does not acknowledge God. The Constitution attempted to construct a government without God… Democracy is an attempt to get around the necessity for a hierarchy of virtue by majority vote. (126-127)

So, there you go. Hauerwas and Willimon being their usual selves. They are full of scholarship and insight into the meaning of the commandments, in their richness and connection to God. They are also full of themselves and their own arrogant and outdated opinions, which they then try to argue emerge from the biblical text. My original Facebook assessment stands.

David J. Lose, Preaching at the Crossroads: How the World–and Our Preaching–is Changing, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013, 112 pp.

Preaching-at-the-CrossroadsI have been a huge fan of David Lose’s regular column, Dear Working Preacher, for many years. It feels like he is writing a personalized letter to me, as a preacher sitting with the text in my community, urging me on and starting a productive conversation about how to bring the good news to my congregation. (Karoline Lewis has been writing for the last several months, perhaps due to a sabbatical, and she is also excellent.)

I was hoping for that same conversational style and collaborative tone in his reflections about the craft of preaching itself, and I found it. I have been pondering for the last several years (with many others) whether preaching itself is in danger, or how preaching must change and adapt to changing circumstances. I was eager to engage Lose as a wise conversation partner on that topic, and this book did just that.

Lose identifies three primary forces at work in our context that have major implications for preaching: postmodernism, secularism and pluralism. He devotes two chapters to each–one explaining how that epistemological reality impacts preachers and listeners, and another exploring strategies to respond in our sermon writing and delivery. One of the things I appreciated most, from the start, was his commentary on the last 50 years of “fixes” for preaching. There has been movement after movement that labels preaching as “broken,” and proposes a way to fix it–moving from lecture to narrative, moving from pulpit authority to conversational style, moving from verbal communication only to the use of images on a screen. He quotes theologian Joseph Sittler in his insistence that preaching can’t be fixed: “‘Of course preaching is in trouble. Whence did we ever manufacture the assumption it was ever to be anything but trouble’ if it is to be relevant to a changing world and faithful to the troubling gospel of Jesus Christ?” (3)

In the section on postmodernism, he identifies the core problem of preaching in a postmodern context as the constant skepticism and crisis of legitimacy. How can we claim to speak truth in a world that doubts all claims of truth? He replaces the modern equation of truth with provability with a faithful claim of truth modeled on confession. Legitimacy then proceeds not from provability, but from the integrity of the confession itself–from the confessor’s honesty and from the confession’s connection to lived experience. In practice, he proposes reinvigorating Sachkritik, or “content criticism,” where interpreters “understand discrete passages of Scripture in relation to the core testimony of the biblical witness.” (36) This makes room for both an hermeneutic of suspicion and a hermeneutic of trust, and invites engagement from listeners in a conversation.

Our primary question when approaching a passage is not “Where did it come from?” or “What did it mean?” but rather “What might it do to the community that gathers around it when next heard?” This postmodern focus on the ability of language not just to say something but to do something has important implications for preaching. (42)

Preaching, from this point of view, is meant to be provocative, eliciting conversation and questions, faith or disbelief, but always striving to make a claim worth responding to. (45)

Moving on to the reality of secularism, Lose identifies the primary problem with our secular culture as a crisis of hope. With the death of transcendence, “we, both inside the church and out, have lost hope–hope that there is something more than meets the eye, hope that some values exist beyond those we can construct, hope that our actions and lives are rooted in a larger framework of meaning.” (52) Our response as preachers, Lose argues, must be to draw people into the Christian story of resurrection hope, helping them to see their lives and vocations as part of a larger and more meaningful narrative.

If we can imagine the purpose of Sunday is not simply to have an encounter with God, but rather to have the encounter clarify our vision and increase our ability to see God in all dimensions of our lives, then we may also experience the centrifugal force of being propelled from worship on Sunday to lives of meaning, purpose, and faith in the world throughout the week. (77)

That is a tall order, to be sure, but it is indeed what we ought to strive for in our preaching and worship experiences.

The final theme Lose identifies is pluralism, specifically “digital pluralism,” a world in which multiple and competing realities are immediately available for easy access via digital means. (87) Our congregations no longer dwell securely in the biblical narrative worldview. They may get a glimpse of it for an hour on Sundays, but the rest of their lives is dominated by other metanarratives, like consumer capitalism or fearful nationalism.

Increasingly, if often unconsciously, we find ourselves offering interpretations of a narrative that few in the congregation know well enough to be able even to appreciate our interpretations, let alone apply them to life outside the congregation’s walls. Such effort can feel like swimming upstream: it is cold and exhausting, and it yields little progress. (101)

This gives voice to one of my deep apprehensions and frustrations with preaching these days. I get people to step into this worldview for one hour every week. Even if they are convinced and convicted by it, Fox News and CNN and the world of advertisement gets them for the other 167 hours of every week. I can be persuasive that the biblical narrative matters, that it impacts their persons and politics, but I can’t do it in isolation.

Lose urges us to move our congregations toward not just biblical literacy, but biblical fluency, “the ability to think–without thinking–in the target language.” In order to do this, we need to not just teach the biblical narrative, but engage people in a participatory way in contemplating how the story impacts their lives, so that they can do what we preachers do–interpret scripture for themselves. He urges participatory practices, visitation to parishioner’s workplaces, and online conversations to this end.

Preaching at the Crossroads sets forth a high standard and an enormous amount of work to do. Yet I end the book feeling both challenged and encouraged, as I always do when I read Lose’s work. I also feel much less alone. It is not just me and my preaching that are struggling with these issues–it is all of us who weekly strive to deliver the good news to those who come into our sanctuaries. I recommend this book to all who care about that endeavor.

Elizabeth Cazden, Antoinette Brown Blackwell: A Biography, Old Westbury, New York: The Feminist Press, 1983, 316 pp.

I’ve known who Antoinette Brown Blackwell was for many years–she was the first woman ordained to the Christian ministry since the New Testament days. She was ordained in 1853 by the historical predecessors of my denomination, the Congregationalists that are now part of the United Church of Christ. I’ve cheered for that history, shouted her name in triumph, and celebrated its connection to our denomination for a long time. However, I’ve never known anything else about Antoinette Brown Blackwell. Antoinette Brown

Recently, I was asked to serve on a team re-imagining the UCC’s Antoinette Brown Award, and subsequently submitted a proposal for an article about her to Common Lot, the UCC women’s magazine. That article was accepted, and tells more about my journey to get to know the Rev. Antoinette Brown Blackwell. (Link to be posted when article, called “Deciphering Antoinette,” is published in November.) The first thing I did was order this book, and I am grateful it was still available. This review will be brief, because most of my reflections on the material covered in the book are discussed in that article.

Cazden’s biography was immediately recognizable to me in its genre and date. It was part of the movement in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s to reclaim women’s history, to recover and rescue women from historical invisibility. Many new historical works were written in this period, and I read many of them in my undergraduate years as a student of history and women’s studies. Returning to this work showed me how well works like these have withstood the test of time, as Cazden’s portrait did not feel dated in any way. The information presented and the style of the story she told were simple and fascinating. She draws her material from the extensive writings of Antoinette Brown Blackwell herself, including her correspondence, her speeches and her journals.

One of the pieces of her story that was most interesting to me was her connection to the 19th century suffragettes. I had imagined her to be deeply pious, and somehow because of that apolitical. She was indeed pious, but she lived out her faith through concrete engagement in the major political issues of her day–abolition, suffrage, temperance and more. I have long studied the lives of those political women like Lucy Stone, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Julia Ward Howe–but never before had I placed Antoinette Brown Blackwell into their milieu. In fact, I learned from Cazden, they were her closest friends and companions. That changed my perception of her remarkably, and for the better.

Two other things stood out for me because they were strikingly true for women in ministry still today, more than 150 years later. First, Antoinette Brown Blackwell did not fit easily with the suffragettes because of her faith, nor did she fit neatly in the church because of her feminism. This remains true today, as female clergy find that their Christianity is alien among activists who reject religion as patriarchal, and their political activism is alien among clergy who focus on church-related issues. The difference, however, is that there are now many, many more of us. We may not fit easily into those groups, but we have each other as sisters in ministry, and we hold tightly to one another.

Second, Antoinette Brown Blackwell struggled mightily and publicly to renegotiate the roles of women and men in the household, arguing that liberating women to have careers of their own required men to step up and take on more responsibility for family and home life. Again, this struggle rings true even 150 years later. While most of the women in ministry I know who are married and/or mothers intentionally sought partners willing to share the load, it is still a constant source of stress, guilt and compromise.

As I say more extensively in the article, Cazden’s biography was a gift because it makes Antoinette Brown Blackwell come alive with a depth and richness of personality, struggle, courage and quirks. I am grateful for Cazden and for her subject.

About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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