Archive for September 2015
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah, Alfred A. Knopf, 2013, 477 pp.
This book defies category. It is an epic novel, across continents and decades. It is a political commentary, full of astute observations and cultural critique, especially around issues of race and immigration. It is a good story, beautifully written, compelling and challenging. The quality of the writing and fiction are not diminished by the insertion of straight cultural commentary, nor does the narrative serve to lighten the impact of the author’s searing observations. It is masterful, and an important read both as a novel and cultural critique. All the better: it’s a great story, a love story. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has written a book that shows us all the power of the novel as a genre, the way an extended perspective and intimate connection with a character can create new forms of empathy, understanding and a window on the human condition.
The two at the center of the story are Ifemelu and Obinze. They seem destined for one another, made perfectly suited to match one another’s wits and habits, and they fall in love while in secondary school in Nigeria. Adichie tells the story of their individual upbringings and their school years against the backdrop of military uprisings in Nigeria. After graduation, Ifemelu departs to study in the United States. Her experience of immigration changes her, and she separates from Obinze, a heartbreak to them both. The novel explores how, and if, their relationship can be recovered. Obinze may have stayed in Nigeria, but he has changed as well. Will their love persist? Can it? Should it? This is no starry-eyed romance. This is a real and deep exploration about what it means to love, to grow with another imperfect human being, and the power of conflicting commitments.
One of the central themes is the question of home and exile. To be an “Americanah” is to be a Nigerian that has spent so much time abroad that they no longer fit well in Nigeria. The novel is set after Ifemelu has spent 15 years in the U.S. before deciding to move back, and she wonders if she will be able to readjust.
One of the key experiences is Ifemelu’s introduction to the American concept of race, and the necessity for her to learn how to navigate the unspoken, subtle and not-so-subtle privilege and discrimination that attend it. She eventually begins to write a blog about it, entitled, “Raceteenth or Various Observations about American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black.” The novel contains several complete blog entries, but those are not the only sources of cultural critique. The story itself navigates Ifemelu’s difficult relationships with American men, both black and white, as she learns the social cues and racial dynamics. The novel is peppered with these observations, and they are powerful.
For example, after her blog becomes popular, Ifemelu is hired to lead diversity training workshops. After one workshop in which she is honest about the reality of racism and its unshakable hold, she receives an angry e-mail and observes:
The point of diversity workshops, or multicultural talks, was not to inspire any real change but to leave people feeling good about themselves. They did not want the content of her ideas; they merely wanted to gesture of her presence. … During her talks, she said: “America has made great progress for which we should be very proud.” In her blog she wrote: “Racism should never have happened and so you don’t get a cookie for reducing it.”
The italics are original, but I love that line.
There is a self-referential playfulness in the novel’s conversations about race. For example, Ifemelu is engaged in a conversation with a group of academics from Princeton, and the conversation goes like this:
“You can’t write an honest novel about race in this country. If you write about how people are really affected by race, it’ll be too obvious. Black writers who do literary fiction in this country, all three of them, not the ten thousand who write those bullshit ghetto books with the bright covers, have two choices: they can do precious or they can do pretentious. When you do neither, nobody knows what to do with you. So if you’re going to write about race, you have to make sure it’s so lyrical and subtle that the reader who doesn’t read between the lines won’t eve know it’s about race.” …
“Or just find a white writer. White writers can be blunt about race and get all activist because their anger isn’t threatening.” (337)
Of course, Americanah is just that kind of work of literary fiction. I hope people pay attention.
Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline, William Morrow of HarperCollins, 2013, 278 pp.
After pushing through the last seven books on Jesus, orthodoxy and theology for work, I was in desperate need of a good novel. I discovered I was more desperate than I realized–or at least this novel was better than I anticipated. I sat down to read it at 9:00 p.m. on a Monday night, and never closed it until it was finished.
Orphan Train is the fictionalized account of a young girl, Molly, at the end of her journey through the foster care system after having lost her parents, and Vivian Daly, an orphan with an heartbreaking tale of her own. Vivian Daly was a child of the “orphan trains,” which ran from major East Coast cities into the Midwest, sending children out to be adopted by families across the country. The novel unfolds the story of Vivian’s extraordinary journey, which began in Ireland, continued through Ellis Island into a New York tenement, collapsed with the loss of her family in a fire, and then sent her on a train to unknown places in the Midwest. Even once she reached her destination, she still moved through several homes. Vivian’s childhood was brutal and unkind, as she was treated more as hired help than as anyone’s child, but her story is one of hope and triumph.
Parallel to Vivian’s story, the author gives us the redemption of Molly Ayer, whose own betrayal by the foster system has brought her close to juvenile hall. Befriending Vivian Daly is part of her community service, but they discover a connection to the harsh reality of growing up with no one who loves you or calls you “family.” Together, they trace their stories, find kinship, and help one another move into a surprising and beautiful future.
I read this too fast to set aside beautiful passages, but it’s the story that makes this most compelling. The characters are engaging and the history and plot are absolutely fascinating. It’s a joy to read.
Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth by Alister McGrath, HarperOne, 2009, 282 pp.
This follows a series of five book reviews on the Christian creeds, which I read in preparation for a sermon series entitled, “I Believe: Christian Creeds in Context.” Those sermons can be found here.
Alongside reading five books and preparing six sermons on the Christian creeds, I had to read up on the controversies that sparked many of the creedal formulations—the debates among early followers of Jesus trying to sort out the basic beliefs required to remain within the Christian fold, tracking the groups labeled “orthodox” against the groups labeled “heretics.” It was one of the most interesting and helpful things I read.
McGrath begins with a sense of eye-rolling impatience with the current fascination with heresy. He blames scholar Walter Bauer for the idea that heresy is nothing more than “suppressed orthodoxy,” the evidence of historical losers who may offer more radical or inclusive ideas. He eschews the contemporary claim that “heresy is radical and innovative, whereas orthodoxy is pedestrian and reactionary.” (2) Instead, he offers his own definition:
Heresy is best seen as a form of Christian belief that, more by accident than design, ultimately ends up subverting, destabilizing or even destroying the core of Christian faith. … Heresy represents certain ways of formulating the core themes of the Christian faith—ways that are sooner or later recognized by the church to be dangerously inadequate or even destructive. (10-11)
Having been influenced by Bauer’s ideas about heresy and subject to the intrigue McGrath criticizes, I found his position compelling. Orthodoxy, he argues, is not about exercising power over one’s detractors—it is about protecting Christianity from easy answers and demystification. He uses the metaphor of dead ends. Heresies are theologies that do not lead anywhere, that result in pat conclusions and a God that can too easily be known and understood. This angle made a progressive, mystic Christian like me sit up and take notice.
[One point, out of order: McGrath makes it clear, especially toward the end of the book, that his definition applies only to theological sects during the patristic period. Once Christianity reached the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church turned to heresy as a tool to punish any individual or group that sought to subvert its power. These groups were not necessarily heretics by McGrath’s definition, and should not be seen as problematic because of their views of the Christian faith. McGrath’s understanding of heresy requires that it is a threat to the whole of the Christian faith–not to individuals or institutions. (208)]
McGrath’s opening chapter on “Faith, Creeds and the Christian Gospel” was one of the most helpful things I read in preaching about the historic creeds of the church. He frames the creeds after William James, as the church’s “working hypotheses” about how to see and comprehend the world. (17) They represent the “consensus of the faithful, rather than the private beliefs of individuals.” (28)
An intellectual scaffolding needed to be developed to preserve the mystery, to safeguard what the church had discovered to be true–a process that entails both discernment and construction. (28)
Doctrine, then, preserves the central mysteries at the heart of the Christian faith and life. … But what happens if a particular doctrine turns out not to protect such mystery but in fact undermines it? What if the theoretical framework intended to shield and shelter a central insight of faith is found to erode or distort it? These questions point us to the essence of heresy. A heresy is a doctrine that ultimately destroys, destabilizes or distorts a mystery rather than preserving it. (30-31, italics original)
I found this insight into heresy made orthodoxy far more compelling that it had been since I stepped away from conservative, evangelical faith. When the creeds are guardians of mystery, their goal is not to explain and codify, but make sure that each new generation is provoked into questions and engagement. Heresy is not unbelief, but unbelief can be the outcome of heresy because it undoes the need to believe in the mystery. (33) Heresy is also not an attack from outside. It emerges from within the church itself. (83)
McGrath continues this line of thinking in his chapter on “The Early Development of Heresy,” where he argues that innovation is required for orthodoxy. It is heresy that wishes to limit or calcify Christian doctrine. He traces this theological claim back to Athanasius in the third century, and follows its progress through a series of orthodox theologians who all emphasize the need for Christianity to evolve.
Yesterday’s attempts to conceptualize the essence of faith need improvement, the need perhaps arising through their being too closely tied to the prevailing assumptions of the day, or perhaps through their focusing excessively on one aspect of a complex question. Doctrinal development is the inevitable and proper outcome of the theological watchfulness demanded by the church. There is thus a sense in which Christian orthodoxy is something that is made as succeeding generations inherit ways of speaking about God and Christ that they rightly respect yet equally rightly wish to subject to examination. … This is most emphatically not being disrespectful toward the past; rather, it is about maintaining the dialogue that began in the past, continues today, and will not end until the close of history. (70)
This accords easily with our United Church of Christ Constitution, which “claims as its own the faith of the historic Church expressed in the ancient creeds and …affirms the responsibility of the Church in each generation to make this faith its own.” However, I did not expect this to be defined as the practice of orthodoxy for all Christians. It raises serious questions for contemporary fundamentalist traditions that demand an unchanging, unquestioning faith.
The remainder of the book offers a deeper look into several prominent heresies, including Ebionitism, Docetism, Valentinism, Arianism, Donatism, and Pelagianism. Other heresies, such as Montanism and Marcionism, make brief appearances from time to time. McGrath does not offer an exhaustive catalog of heretical thought, but takes representative examples.
One chapter explores what motivates heresy, then and now, which McGrath places into a typology of “pressures” that pull against orthodoxy:
Cultural norms: A perception that Christianity is significantly out of touch with contemporary cultural values…
Rational norms: The belief that certain Christian ideas are contrary to “right reason”…
Social identity: A means of religious self-identification of marginalized social groupings
Religious accommodation: Pressure to modify certain aspects of the Christian faith in order to facilitate coexistence
Ethical concerns: The perception that religious orthodoxy is excessively morally permissive or anarchic on the one hand, or restrictive or oppressive on the other. (180)
One of the most interesting things I had not previously recognized was the extent to which heresies are more, rather than less, morally demanding and restrictive than orthodoxy. The Donatists are a chief example, but I am also reminded of movements such as the Shakers.
The concluding chapters address the rise of Protestantism and Islam, and how both movements relate to both orthodoxy and heresy. McGrath then ends with a final plea for the beauty of orthodoxy:
The pursuit of orthodoxy is essentially the quest for Christian authenticity. The relentless attempt to find the best formulations of Christian truth claims reflects the insight that Christianity is capable of stating and understanding its ideas inadequately and inauthentically. … Defective and damaging forms of the Christian faith–in other words, heresies–will limit its survival prospects. The quest for orthodoxy is above all a search for authenticity. (232)
I found McGrath’s defense of orthodoxy very compelling, because it offers a breathable, evolving faith that preserves mysteries rather than forcing them closed. It offered me a much different approach to the historic creeds of the church that unlocked them in new and compelling ways, and engaged my often-skeptical faith in a richer conversation with orthodox ideas.
“I Believe” Exploring the Apostles’ Creed by Alister McGrath, InterVarsity Press, 1997, 120 pp.
This is the fifth of five book reviews on the Christian creeds (and a book in heresy), which I read in preparation for a sermon series entitled, “I Believe: Christian Creeds in Context.” Those sermons can be found here.
Alister McGrath is a darling of the evangelical movement, because he is a Christian apologist willing to argue with leaders of the New Atheism movement with the authority of his academic credentials at Oxford. He is generally a conservative sort, but I enjoyed his books on the development of the King James Version of the Bible and his biography of John Calvin. This book on the creed was not as uniformly helpful as some of the other resources, simply because other resources (including his own book on heresy) covered the topics with greater depth and interest.
McGrath’s take on the creed divides it into six sections, each of which gets a chapter in the book. Each chapter begins with a segment on “The Ideas Explained,” followed by a parallel on “The Ideas Applied.” He emphasizes the scriptural background of each section of the creed, providing a list of biblical citations at the end of each chapter, without commentary. His best contribution to the conversation about the creeds was his logical, critical analysis of each element of the creedal theology.
For example, his section on the importance of Jesus’ suffering and death addresses the problem of evil. He lists four answers that have been given in the history of religious thought (suffering is real and alleviated only by death; suffering is an illusion; suffering is real and we can rise above it; and the Christian response that God knows our suffering). The idea that God suffered in Christ, with us, is Christianity’s unique contribution, and places us in an intimate relationship. McGrath’s analysis in placing the creed in a wider context of religious history adds an interesting dynamic to the discussion. However, he also gives us powerful turns of phrase from time to time. In the same section, he writes,
God is not like a general who issues orders to his troops from the safety of a bomb-proof shelter, miles away from the front line, but one who leads his troops from the front, having previously done all that he asks them to do in turn. If God asks us to suffer on his behalf, it is because he has already suffered on our behalf. (67)
McGrath was most helpful for his ability to be clear and concise in his descriptions, but the brevity of this work leads to few new insights or ideas. However, I was simultaneously reading his book on heresy, which covered much of the same territory in a richer and more interesting way.
The Life We Claim: The Apostles’ Creed for Preaching, Teaching and Worship by James C. Howell, Abingdon Press, 2005, 173 pp.
This is the fourth of five book reviews on the Christian creeds (and a book in heresy), which I read in preparation for a sermon series entitled, “I Believe: Christian Creeds in Context.” Those sermons can be found here.
James C. Howell wrote the excellent commentary about the creeds for the Narrative Lectionary series that inspired me to preach my sermon series on the topic, so his book was among the first I sought.
The Life We Claim lives up to its subtitle as a resource for preaching, teaching and worship. The book is structured in 35 short “lessons,” which includes both a line-by-line breakdown of the Creed and introductory materials. Each small group of lessons is followed by a sample sermon on that section, 14 total. The appendix even includes suggested hymns, songs and anthems to accompany a related sermon series.
The most helpful part of Howell’s book, for me, were the sample sermons. I struggled to find ways to preach on the components of the Apostles’ Creed that was more than theological instruction. Howell’s contribution was to move beyond teaching into preaching, a way of telling the good news and challenge in each section of the creed. He offered ways to see the lines of the creed as an invitation to spiritual connection in daily life, including many helpful illustrations and metaphors.
For example, his sermon on God as Father imagined God’s experience of fatherhood based on his own. He describes his experience of fatherhood, then imagines God’s.
I have been dizzied by unanticipated delights, and my heart has been broken in places I didn’t know were there. Question: is it like that for God? If God is our Father, our “Abba,” does God look down at us and at one moment it’s an unexpected delight, and then the next moment God’s heart is broken? (20-21)
Later, his discussion of Jesus’ suffering on the cross urges us into places of suffering in God’s name.
The Creed mercifully reminds us that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate. It’s not that suffering is over there and God is over here, and we must rush away from suffering to get back to where God is, because where God is there can be no suffering. If you want to find God, look into the face of suffering; visit the place of suffering. Wherever there is human anguish, loss and pain, God is there. (67)
One of the most controversial lines in the Apostles’ Creed is about Jesus’ “descent into hell.” Howell’s succinct argument was the most persuasive and accessible of any of the authors I read.
Because Jesus descended into hell, we know there is no such thing as a godless place. Whenever we as the Church go to hell, we find that Jesus is there ahead of us, and we discover that we at long last are actually close to the Jesus for whom we long. (78)
Howell writes with a pastoral heart. This book offers just what it promises–tools for teaching, preaching and worship focused on the Apostles’ Creed. I recommend it highly for that purpose.
In Search of Belief by Joan Chittister, Liguori/Triumph, 1999, 217 pp.
This is the third of five book reviews on the Christian creeds (and a book in heresy), which I read in preparation for a sermon series entitled, “I Believe: Christian Creeds in Context.” Those sermons can be found here.
Joan Chittister is in a category all her own. While everyone else approaches the creeds with an attempt to explain or expound, to offer background or argument or enhancement, Chittister approaches the creeds with her self, her questions, her wonderings, and her mysticism. What emerges is a spiritual conversation–sometimes argumentative, sometimes comfortable–musing on the Apostles’ Creed.
Chittister breaks the creed into more pieces than any other author, with 27 separate chapters, each one devoted to just a word or short phrase from the creed. This approach leads to more of a devotional resource than a reference book. Chittister’s meditations range far and wide from the creed itself, and she wanders about to expand the basic ideas more than clarifying them. In that expansive wandering, the reader stumbles into moments of beauty and insight that are beyond the words of the creeds, but true to its mysteries. For example, her short second chapter on “In God” contains these reflections:
God is the mystery nobody wants. What people covet in God is not mystery but certainty. (18)
In the long light of human history, then, it is not belief in God that sets us apart. It is the kind of God in which we choose to believe that in the end makes all the difference. (20)
God is both what we cannot think and what we cannot not think at the same time. (21)
Her fourth chapter, “Almighty,” follows this path:
We want interventions from God, in other words, to make the world what we want the world to be rather than to change ourselves so the world can become what it ought to be. We want someone else to do something, rather than face the need to become something other ourselves. We want a God who does physical miracles rather than spiritual ones. (35)
To see the Almighty God we must wrest ourselves open to the almightiness of God in us, around us, beneath us, before us, in every possibility that impels us to be more than we are. (37)
God is being as almighty in me as I have finally mustered the courage to allow and been given the opportunity to attempt. (38)
Her spiritual paths invite a depth and richness in our contemplation of the creed, word by word, that cannot be hurried but must be pondered. As the creed unfolds, Chittister’s Roman Catholicism and feminism show through boldly in the chapters on Mary and the church, which offer searing critiques of the Roman church’s refusal to ordain women, denial of feminine language of God and closed-minded teaches on sexuality. I also found her Catholicism evident in the chapter on judgment, which included a wonderful insight into “healthy guilt,” which she identifies as a guilt that is felt for the right things (like ways we harm others), is not exaggerated, and can be acted upon to change our behavior and situation. There are lots of jokes about Catholic guilt, but this is an insightful understanding of the purpose of this emotion.
One of my favorite chapters was her reflection on the communion of the saints. She writes,
Belief in the communion of saints is a call to immersion in the holy-making project of living out the life of Christ ourselves as so many have done before us. … We are bound to the unfinished work of bringing the world to the beatitudes. (178)
The Creed is not a call to believe in the Church. The Creed is a call to follow the Christ. Believing in a church that makes us feel holy ourselves by keeping in good repair a checklist of private devotions is easy. Believing in the Christ who demands our sanctity be measured by our relationships to the rest of the human race is the real measure of the holy life. (179)
As always, Joan Chittister goes deep and invites us to engage not just in the work of thinking, but of connecting and living in a relationship with Christ, in this embodied world and in the realm of the heart. This book was well worth a slower, more dedicated read than I gave it. There is much beauty and wisdom contained in it.
The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters by Luke Timothy Johnson, Doubleday, 2003, 325 pp.
This is the second of five book reviews on the Christian creeds (and a book in heresy), which I read in preparation for a sermon series entitled, “I Believe: Christian Creeds in Context.” Those sermons can be found here.
Luke Timothy Johnson’s work is richest, deepest and most scholarly of the various books about the creeds I have read. All other sources after 2003 refer to his work as foundational. It is also the only resource that focuses on the Nicene Creed more than the Apostles’ Creed.
Johnson begins with more than 60 pages of background on the origins, history and importance of the creed. He provides the most detailed account of the origins of the creeds, beginning with the initial professions of faith that named Jesus as Christ, Lord, Messiah and Son of God. Johnson then offers an extensive but manageable review of the patristic letters and writings that show traces of the creed’s formation and development before explaining the dynamics of the Council of Nicea.
Johnson’s second chapter, “What the Creed Is and What It Does,” was incredibly insightful and helpful in explaining why the creeds matter. His claims answered my inner skeptic and the skeptics in my congregation, and helped me formulate my own response to their importance. He writes,
In a world that celebrates individuality, they are actually doing something together. In an age that avoids commitment, they pledge themselves to a set of convictions and thereby to each other. In a culture that rewards novelty and creativity, they are words written by others long ago. In a society where accepted wisdom changes by the minute, they claim that some truths are so critical that they must be repeated over and over again. In a throwaway, consumerist world, they accept, preserve and continue tradition. Reciting the creed at worship is thus a counter-cultural act. (40-41)
No one of us individually believes as much or as well as all of us do communally. The church always believes more and better than any one of its members. … We choose to stand together under these truths, in the hope that our individual “I believe” someday approaches the strength of the church’s “we believe.” (46)
When believers stand together in the liturgy after the readings from Scripture and recite the words of the Christian creed, they affirm that the world as imagined by Scripture and constructed by the creed is the world in which they choose to live. (61)
Johnson divides the creed into six major sections, and writes extensively about each one. He begins by tracing scriptural precedents for each, then offering a theological analysis of every piece of the creed. His Roman Catholicism, traditionalism and orthodoxy shine a little to strongly for me in his outdated critiques of liberation theology, but he surprised me with his insistence that we question all-male God language and recognize all forms of the church as holy and godly.
Many times in the course of the book, he makes a theological claim or description explaining the creed that is simply beautiful. He is able to articulate the importance of these basic theological claims in ways that leave me wanting to affirm them more deeply and more passionately. In his reflection on the resurrection, he writes,
The strong sense of salvation as a participation in God’s life, remember, depends on the strong experience of liberation and power, not as something hoped for in the future, but happening already in present-day lives. The reality of the resurrection was convincing because people acted freely and powerfully through the Holy Spirit. … The greatest miracle supporting the claims of Christians was the transformation of their lives and the creation of transforming communities. (151)
This is but one small example among many, in each section of the Johnson’s writings about the creeds, where he makes the ancient words come alive and reinforces their importance in the Christian life and faith.
The Creed is valuable not only because of the depth of its history, explanation and focus in the Nicene Creed, but because Johnson constructs a beautiful, holistic theology of the Christian faith. While I may disagree from time to time, I learned an enormous amount and my heart was warmed again and again throughout his reflection on the creeds.