Children of the Stone: The Power of Music in a Hard Land by Sandy Tolan, Bloomsbury USA, 2015, 480 pp.
I was thrilled to discover Sandy Tolan was writing another book about life in Palestine. His first, The Lemon Tree, was so compelling, and the story so fascinating, I couldn’t wait to read Children of the Stone. While it was a good story, it was a less compelling read than I had hoped, and I found it somewhat disappointing.
The center of the story is Ramzi Hussein Aburedwan, one of the young Palestinian boys whose picture was made famous for throwing stones at Israeli troops during the Intifada. Ramzi grows up to become a musician, and to found a music school for children in Gaza, the most improbably location. Children of the Stone tells the story of his growing up in Gaza, the (gross) violence he witnessed and the (minor) violence he engaged. It unfolds the incredible effort of his musical training, entering the realm of music at a much later age than many of his peers, and the way music freed him from Gaza and opened up the world for him. It shares his passion to open up that world for other Palestinian children through his music school.
Where the book disappoints is in the story of the building of the music school. Tolan tries to weave together Ramzi’s story with the stories of Palestinian academic Edward Said and Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim. Ramzi did come to play in the Divan orchestra founded by Said and Barenboim, but the connection between them did not seem worthy of the ink Tolan devoted to it. The Divan Orchestra was a greater source of frustration than inspiration for Ramzi. The many pages devoted to Said and Barenboim did not seem to advance the story, and Ramzi never even met Said. The same is true of the time Tolan spends developing the life portraits of several volunteers (mostly European) who travel to Palestine to help teach in the school.
Ramzi is somehow able to raise money for the school, convince musicians and volunteers to travel to Palestine to teach and play, continue touring Europe as a musician, oversee every detail of construction, handle publicity and politics, and gently encourage students that music is worthwhile. In order to do that, he must be an incredible force of passion and charisma, with an energy and magnetism that radiates. However, Tolan’s portrait does not capture and captivate us with that force. Like the journalist that he is, Tolan’s Children of the Stone reads too much like a laundry list of events and not enough like the captivating story of Ramzi’s amazing life. Ramzi feels diminished by the telling, which simply recounts “this happened, then this happened, and this witness said this, and this witness said that…” It’s too much like a newspaper account of an event, and not enough like an author crafting a narrative. Those who speak to Ramzi’s temperament and dedication come across as witnesses giving a deposition rather than those inspired (or angered) by Ramzi’s passion. At one point, about midway through, I almost put it down for good, bored by the side narratives and dry recounting.
The book is at its best when it is recounting the history of the conflict between Israel and Palestine, and telling the story of Ramzi’s family. With Ramzi’s life as the uniting thread, Tolan is able to open an important window into the untold stories of life in Palestine. His approach is less careful to justify the actions of the Israeli government than in The Lemon Tree, which I appreciate as a brave and important act of truth-telling. For that reason, I want to support this book, to have people read it and come to know the important story that it tells about Ramzi, his family and the people of Palestine. I only wish I could recommend it with more enthusiasm for the storytelling.
Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic by Reinhold Niebuhr, Westminster John Knox Press, 1929, 152 pp.
This book came to me like water in the desert, finding me when my soul was dry. I read it in 24 hours on a clergy retreat when my soul and my ministry longed for refreshment. Niebuhr’s reflections offered it.
Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic is a compilation of excerpts from Reinhold Niebuhr’s journals during his years of parish ministry in Detroit from 1915-1928. They are years of struggle and difficulty, when Niebuhr questions the value of the church and whether it can survive in to the future. He confronts the social ills of industrialization, economic stratification, and poor treatment of the working people that comprise his parish. He is unabashedly liberal in the face of rising fundamentalism. He gets discouraged, angry, frustrated and occasionally despairing. In short, he’s a pastor just like me, with a whole pile of doubts and discouragements about the work we share and whether it matters at all. It made me feel so much better to know that these problems are not new to me or to my era of ministry.
In his preface from 1956, he writes,
The modern ministry is in no easy position; for it is committed to the espousal of ideals (professionally, at that) which are in direct conflict with the dominant interests and prejudices of contemporary civilization. … It is no easy task to deal realistically with the moral confusion of our day, either in the pulpit or the pew, and avoid the appearance, and possibly the actual peril, of cynicism. (4-5)
That’s exactly how I had been feeling lately–that the Gospel I have vowed to preach is in direct conflict with all the common wisdom and desire of our day, and that I can either couch it gently enough to try and be heard or preach boldly and risk being dismissed as completely irrelevant.
The highest moral and spiritual achievements depend not upon a push but upon a pull. People must be charmed into righteousness. The language of aspiration rather than that of criticism and command is the proper pulpit language. (75)
So it must be gentle, but firm. Compelling by charm, not compulsion.
Niebuhr discovered in his first year long ago what I have as well: we can, we must, fall in love with the people.
“The people are a little discouraged. Some of them seem to doubt whether the church will survive. But there are a few who are the salt of the earth, and if I make a go of this they will be more responsible than they will ever know.” (11)
It is a deep love and appreciation for the faithful people of my parish that keeps me going, always. They are truly incredible and inspirational in their faith, and I would not let them down.
It is also companionship with other pastors that keeps me going. This book added a new companion to that list. To listen in on Niebuhr’s own struggles helped me feel less alone. He confesses to all the same faults I share: to walking past a home 2-3 times before having the courage to enter for a pastoral call, to wrangling inattentive youth in Sunday School, to preaching sermons that are tamer in delivery than in preparation, to frustration with the seeming impotence of the church, to tension with preaching economic justice, and to the failure to inspire people who call themselves Christians to step up and live into the teachings of Christ. I am not the only one to fail in these ways. Niebuhr was a great one, and he did too.
The book is full of short gems of observation about life in the ministry that also made me feel seen and known and understood. Here’s a sampling of things that I could, by shared sentiment, have written, though far less eloquently:
We liberal preachers … are too ready to attribute conventional opinions to cowardice. What we don’t realize is that the great majority of parsons simply don’t share our radical convictions. (141)
There must be something bogus about me. Here I have been preaching the gospel for thirteen years and crying, “Woe unto you if all men speak well of you,” and yet I leave without a serious controversy in the whole thirteen years. It is almost impossible to be sane and Christian at the same time, and on the whole I have been more sane than Christian. (151)
Then, as always, Niebuhr demands the most high standards of fidelity to the cross, and he speaks with the same tenor of theological compulsion that has always motivated me.
Liberalism has too little appreciation of the tragedy of life to understand the cross and orthodoxy insists too much upon the absolute uniqueness of the sacrifice of Christ to make the preaching of the cross effective. … It is because the cross of Christ symbolizes something in the very heart of reality, something in universal experience that it has its central place in history. … What makes this tragedy redemptive is that the foolishness of love is revealed as wisdom in the end and its futility becomes the occasion for new moral striving. (70)
This should be a classic on the shelf of every pastor, especially those of us who call ourselves “liberal” or, these days, “progressive.” It is a reminder of the high nature of our calling, and the low, doubt-filled and failure-ridden nature of our attempts to fulfill it. For me, receiving that reminder from Niebuhr in the context of his own ministry is both challenging and reassuring. I know I will return to this book again, and re-read it again when I feel discouraged.
Real Good Church: How Our Church Came Back from the Dead, and Yours Can Too by Molly Phinney Baskette, Pilgrim Press, 2014, 228 pp.
Let me start by saying that I knew going in to this book that Molly Phinney Baskette and First Church Somerville are the real deal. I got to know Molly when I served in Boston, and I was privileged to watch some of this transformation with my own eyes. I was there in the early years, when it was still fragile and uncertain, which makes it all the more exciting and encouraging to read about a church that is now thriving as a model for others. This book tells the story of how they did it.
I read a lot of books of advice for leading and transforming churches. Some of them sound like impossible plans only a consultant could concoct. Others promise that “if you just do this one thing, your church will turn around.” Still others offer a lot of theory, but not a lot of practical advice. Real Good Church manages to avoid all of those pitfalls. It’s packed with practical wisdom acquired from hard-earned experience, but it also offers a deeper reflection on the Spirit of God at work. The tone throughout is light-hearted and conversational, so you feel like you are carrying on a conversation with a friend in ministry. It’s a great resource.
One of my favorite insights comes early on–the need for clergy to be “Doomsday Pollyannas.” We must be honest about the realistic potential of demise, but also offer hope.
Communicating the urgency of doing things well and/or differently to our people, while also communicating how confident we are that we can do it. … What’s at stake is the death of the church for everybody, and what’s possible is the life of the church, for everybody already there who buys into the vision, as well as many more people who aren’t aware that this place and people are going to become an important part of their lives. (11)
I love this term and description, and I have found it true in the life of my own church. We are able to move forward best when we share both a sense of impending doom and impossible (or only possible with God) hope. She returns to this idea later, as well.
Dying churches are often churches with low self-esteem. Your task as a leader is not to build up the church’s self-esteem but to build up its God-esteem: its sense that God is guiding them and is a big stakeholder and participant in its life and future–their sense that God loves them and is hard at work, and visibly at work, among them. (72)
Another important insight running throughout the book is the connection between the church and its community.
Look for the action in your community, and be in the midst of it. Plant yourself there, be visible, build relationships. (75)
First Church Somerville did that with a Drag Gospel Sunday, participation in local parades and festivals, joining in the Red Sox excitement with outdoor viewing, office hours in the local coffee shop, and more. Baskette is clear that this is not a program for you to follow in your church, because they are rooted in the local community in Somerville and the identity of their congregation. However, every congregation can find the life and energy in their community and become involved. We can all shift our ministries to focus on “them” (those people who are not already active in the congregation) rather than “us” (church members’ tastes and needs).
The book has sections on everything from job descriptions to e-mail to worship to conflict to facilities management. The appendix is rich with examples of materials used at First Church Somerville. It radiates with the author’s creativity and energy for ministry. I recommend it first for pastors, especially those serving churches in need of revitalization. It would work as well for lay leadership in those churches, but the sheer wealth of material might be overwhelming to a church council without a careful plan to absorb (and implement!) ideas slowly. You’ll learn a lot, enjoy reading it, and leave encouraged for the possibilities for the future of your church.
The Morning and the Evening by Joan Williams, 1961, re-published 2014 as e-book by Open Road Media, 214 pp.
From time to time, I receive requests from authors and publishers to read and review their books. Almost always, the books are nothing of interest to me–self-published novels or works of Christian writers whose theology is likely far different than my own. I decline politely, because I just don’t have time or energy to read books I don’t want to read, and I know that the author or publisher is not likely interested in an unfavorable review anyway.
This book by Joan Williams was an exception, and I’m so glad the folks at Open Road Media reached out to me. The Morning and the Evening was originally published in 1961, when it was among the finalists for a National Book Award. Williams was an inspiring young author who was deeply influenced by William Faulkner, with whom she carried on a lengthy affair. I love Faulkner, and regularly use the National Book Award nominees as a means to find quality fiction, so I decided to give this a try. It was a huge gift.
The Morning and the Evening is the story of Jake Darby and the people of Marigold, Mississippi. Jake is a 40-year old mute whose lives a simple life with his mother. Because he cannot communicate, it’s unclear to those around him just how much Jake comprehends about his world, if anything. Williams allows us to glimpse inside Jake’s world from his perspective, where we see the world through his simple eyes–what he sees, senses, observes, which is limited to only one thing at a time.
The book is as much about the people of Marigold as it is about Jake, and especially their relationship with him. We watch as some people treat Jake with kindness, others with cruelty, others with indifference or annoyance. Some even fear him. When Jake’s mother dies, the townspeople must figure out what will become of Jake. Williams invites us into their lives too, their sins and hopes and sorrows. Each one is crafted with care and depth, no stereotypes or archetypes anywhere to be found. Williams writes stories of ordinary women that no one notices, and each one is unique. Her African-American characters don’t quite avoid stereotypes and rise to the same level of sophistication, but they are not flat either.
I loved this book from beginning to end. The characters were likable and relatable, and the plot unfolded in a compelling way with the tension about what would happen to Jake. I cried when it ended, and I wanted to stay in Marigold and hear more from these characters I had met along the way.
Williams’ writing is exquisite. I saw the Faulkner connection through the character of Jake, reminiscent of Vardaman Bundren in As I Lay Dying or Benjamin Compson in The Sound and the Fury, and in the small-town Mississippi cast of characters. I was also reminded of Olive Kittredge by Elizabeth Strout, with the way that the various character’s stories all interacted with Jake’s. However, Joan Williams has her own voice and style that is simple and beautiful.
I am grateful that Open Road Media has made this book and the rest of Joan Williams’ collection available again via e-book. I have another Williams book they sent me to review, and I can’t wait to get to it. You should head over to Amazon and add it to your e-reader now.
The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan, HarperCollins, 2013, 589 pp.
This is Amy Tan’s most epic novel to date. As always, she crosses generations and continents, with a dual emphasis on relationships between mothers and daughters, and the coming together of Chinese and American cultures. Unfortunately, the epic length of this book is not supported by a story or characters worthy of nearly 600 pages. While it was a good story, well written and new, it felt slow and excessive, like it was altogether too much information. I would have adored the story if it had been less than 400 pages (and, yes, I think it could have been told just as well in that span–somethings were just unnecessary). Even so, Tan’s writing and a compelling setting saved the day.
The story centers on Violet, a young girl who is the daughter of a Chinese man and American woman, being raised in a first-class courtesan house in Shanghai at the beginning of the 20th century. Her mother, Lulu/Lucia/Lucretia, is the owner of the courtesan house, which specializes in bringing together Western and Chinese businessmen. Her mother partners with Golden Dove, a Chinese courtesan who helped her start the business. Violet and her mother never find an easy intimacy as mother and daughter (this is an Amy Tan book, after all). MILD SPOILERS HERE: Events when Violet is 14 lead to a forced separation, as her mother sails to America and Violet is sold as a courtesan. A former courtesan from her mother’s house, Magic Cloud, becomes her companion and advisor. The book then explores the way a particular pattern of both circumstances and attitudes plays out across three generations.
Most of the story is Violet’s, and the book would have been better if it had remained so. The lengthy back-story about Lulu was interesting, but it could have been told with much greater brevity. The back-story of the third generation in the last 100 pages felt wholly unnecessary (to avoid spoilers, I won’t tell you whether it’s Violet’s daughter or grandmother). None of the main characters (Violet, Lulu and the additional generation) were exceptionally memorable or compelling. It was the two supporting characters–Golden Dove and Magic Cloud–who are the most interesting and compelling. There are a cast of male characters, too, with some good stories and backgrounds.
What made the book worthwhile was the setting. Amy Tan did extensive research into life in Shanghai in the early 20th century, into the roles of the courtesans, into life in Chinese farming villages, and more. She does a beautiful job of capturing that world and bringing it to life. In my imagination, I could picture everything she described–the rooms, the streets, the mountains, the men and women in the courtesan houses, even the subtlety of gestures and silent acknowledgements. I felt the strain and restraint of the prescribed roles in Chinese families and society. That part of the book is masterful, compelling, and fascinating. I enjoyed it very much, even as found myself wading through much of the rest.
The Valley of Amazement would have benefited from a more rigorous editor, but it’s still worth reading, if you’ve got the time to read a really good 400 page novel that lasts for 600 pages.
Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor, HarperOne,2014, 200 pp.
This book was not what I expected. As always, because it is Barbara Brown Taylor, it was beautifully written, with deep observations and insights, God-tinged at every turn. However, I expected darkness in this book to be far more metaphorical. Taylor’s previous two books, Leaving Church and An Altar in the World, were about her journey into a new and unexpected future outside of traditional ministry and church. I expected this to be an exploration of that new and unknown reality. However, Taylor–ever ready to surprise–responds to her quest with an engagement in real, physical darkness. She literally walks in the dark, in a variety of ways, and then reflects on what she has learned.
One important note (which probably would be more fitting at the end of this review, but preoccupied me and might preoccupy you, so I’ll address it first): How does Taylor address the historic dualism between light and dark, which expands to divide white and black, male and female, good and evil, with one side of the duality always paired with good and the other evil? That equation of darkness with evil has deep implications in the systemic racism, fear and distrust of people of color throughout the world. To neglect addressing it would be to perpetuate it. Taylor does address it, and quickly. While I would have liked more depth in her examination of that painful history in metaphor and reality, she does not ignore it and handles it enough to make me continue reading without a feeling that something important was unacknowledged. More, though, the whole book itself turns out to be a reclaiming of the dark as a place of beauty, a place of God. The fundamental trajectory of the book is her insistence that God is not only light, God is also dark. God dwells in the darkness, not just to illuminate it, but because darkness is also of God and a path to God. So, in the end, her book contributes helpfully to overcoming that anti-darkness legacy, even though I still would have welcomed a more explicit unpacking of that particular part of history.
Taylor begins by identifying darkness as “anything that scares me,” which seems problematic given the issues I just raised, and, again, I do not thing she adequately addresses it. However, she goes on to name the problem almost immediately after, and then to offer her critique of “full solar spirituality:”
…a kind of spirituality that deals with darkness by denying its existence or at least depriving it of any meaningful attention. I call it “full solar spirituality,” since it focuses on staying in the light of God around the clock, both absorbing and reflecting the sunny side of faith. (7)
The danger of this “full solar spirituality” is that darkness or sorrow or trouble in your life becomes a symptom of weak faith. Taylor contrasts this with “lunar spirituality, in which the divine light available to me waxes and wanes with the seasons.” (9) This book then asks,
What would my life with God look like if I trusted this rhythm instead of opposing it? What was I afraid of, exactly, and how much was I missing by reaching reflexively for the lights? Did I have faith enough to explore the dark instead of using faith to bar all my doors? (9)
The first chapter invites the reader to consider his or her own personal history of the dark, hearkening back to childhood relationships and fears of the dark. It contains one of the most insightful lines of the book, quoted from James Bremmer:
Courage, which is no more than the management of fear, must be practiced. For this, children need a widespread, easily obtained, cheap, renewable source of something scary but not actually dangerous. (37)
Darkness is the perfect source.
The subsequent chapters look at the scriptures for important events that take place in the night (there are many–think of how much God speaks through dreams); at the ways we are “hampered by brilliance” and need the darkness of night to thrive; and the so-called “dark emotions.” She explores the work of psychiatrist Miriam Greenspan, who sorts out the differences between depression and “dark emotions.” The problem is not the emotions themselves; it is our inability to tolerate them.
When we cannot tolerate the dark, we try all kinds of artificial lights… There are no dark emotions, Greenspan says–just unskillful ways of coping with emotions we cannot bear. The emotions themselves are conduits of pure energy that want something from us: to wake us up, to tell us something we need to know, to break the ice around our hearts, to move us to act. (78)
Later in the chapter, she discussed the work of Ken Wilber, who talks about the different functions of religion as translation (helping people understand and find hope in their hardships to strengthen their selves) and transformation (dismantling the self and dislocating comfort). In American culture, “translation is being marketed as transformation, which is why those who try to live on the spiritual equivalent of fast food have to keep going back for more and more.” (88) I have found this to be a key part of my own ministry. I am often the only person in situations of grief or tragedy that is comfortable sitting with the person in their sorrow, not attempting to fix anything or even hurrying them through or making things easier, better, comforting. As Christians who follow a God who died on a cross, I think we should be far more skilled at being present to discomfort and suffering than we are.
Taylor then moves into more physical experiences of darkness, such as a “blind restaurant” exhibit and a spelunking adventure, before turning to St. John of the Cross, the via negativa and the “dark night of the soul.” She discovers herself moving away from all she thought she grasped about God, toward a mysterious trust in the presence of God even when she feels only the absence of God.
When we can no longer see the path we are on, we can no longer read the maps we have brought with us or sense anything in the dark that might tell us where we are, then and only then are we vulnerable to God’s protection. (147)
Learning to Walk in the Dark is a book about loss, but it manages to avoid being heavy or weighty. Sometimes, I even longed for it to feel a little more hefty. Instead, loss becomes a companion, like darkness, that we need not fear or carry as a burden, but journey with along life’s way. This book is full of all the richness Taylor provides, but without much of the depth of scripture study we have seen in her “churchier” works. It would find an easy home among the “spiritual but not religious,” while also opening new spiritual paths for those of us who stay within traditional religious life. I found wisdom, insight and joy in its pages.