Presentation–St. Stephen’s Cathedral–12/2 & 12/9 2018

I had the great good pleasure of presenting on Goodbye Christ? the past couple of Sundays at St. Stephen’s Cathedral. My slides used in the presentation are embedded below, though I offer them mostly as a demonstration of my astonishingly limited visual imagination. Some of the slides don’t stand easily on their own and require more explication than I care to include at the moment, but maybe I’ll work on it later. And I’ll be glad to respond to any questions in comments sections below.

One thing I was pleased to hunt up and discover for this presentation were the tangential but still interesting connections of the City of Harrisburg to the Great Migration and the cultural currents of the New Negro/Harlem Renaissance, stuff I hadn’t looked in to at all in my book proper.

One thing that can’t be represented here is the great pleasure it was to lead discussion in a church whose people are interested in knowing more, and desirous of doing more to make the world a better place through educating themselves and others. A good place to worship, and belong.


Esther Popel Shaw, Poet of Harrisburg


I didn’t really look into the poetry and other writings of Esther Popel Shaw while working on Goodbye Christ?, but digging around for the ways the Harlem Renaissance may connect to the City of Harrisburg for a presentation I’m doing at St. Stephen’s Cathedral, I discovered her biographical connection to the region.  Born in Harrisburg and the first African American to attend Dickinson, she left the area to attend Howard University after not being allowed to live on Campus. She eventually worked on various literary and political journals in Harlem for a while and was a teacher for much of her life.  I hesitate to say these poems are representative since I don’t know enough about all her writing, but a nice collection can be found at The Beltway Poetry Quarterly.  I reproduce one of them here.  The ironic juxtaposition of American (and/or Christian) ideals with the realities of racial violence was a common trope of literature of the period


“I pledge allegiance to the flag”—
They dragged him naked
Through the muddy streets,
A feeble-minded black boy!
And the charge? Supposed assault
Upon an aged woman!
“Of the United States of America”—
One mile they dragged him
Like a sack of meal,
A rope around his neck,
A bloody ear
Left dangling by the patriotic hand
Of Nordic youth! (A boy of seventeen!)
“And to the Republic for which it stands”—
And then they hanged his body to a tree,
Below the window of the county judge
Whose pleadings for that battered human flesh
Were stifled by the brutish, raucous howls
Of men, and boys, and women with their babes,
Brought out to see the bloody spectacle
Of murder in the style of ’33!
“(Three thousand strong, they were!)
“One Nation, Indivisible”—
To make the tale complete
They built a fire—
What matters that the stuff they burned
Was flesh—and bone—and hair—
And reeking gasoline!
“With Liberty—and Justice”—
They cut the rope in bits
And passed them out,
For souvenirs, among the men and boys!
The teeth no doubt, on golden chains
Will hang
About the favored necks of sweethearts, wives,
And daughters, mothers, sisters, babies, too!
“For ALL!”

–Esther Popel Shaw

Review: Marilynne Robinson, The Givennness of Things

The Givenness of Things: EssaysThe Givenness of Things: Essays by Marilynne Robinson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My review of Marilynne Robinson recently appeared on Reading Religion. The opening…

A friend once complained to me that he thought Marilynne Robinson’s novels were “slow.” Slightly aghast, my response was that glaciers are slow, but they dig deep. They gather force patiently through time, and their full effects are seen only as they recede. They rewrite continents.

This comparison is apt for Robinson’s collection, The Givenness of Things. The pieces vary by occasion. They are written for disparate audiences, sometimes as commencement speeches, sometimes as invited lectures on a chosen or assigned topic. Necessarily, then, the reader does not quickly arrive at a neatly formulated thesis. However, over time, a sustained argument comes into view. Points of emphasis build through repetition; interesting asides are picked up and elaborated. Robinson’s thinking gathers force less by the secure scaffolding of an academic essay than by the gathered observations of human beings thinking and acting in these early hectic years of the 21st century.

Or failing to think. Robinson is convinced that we Americans have become a forgetful people. The list of things that we have forgotten is long: we have forgotten the legacy of the Reformation; we have forgotten the value of the common good manifested in things like publicly funded libraries and schools; we have forgotten the principles of the Civil Rights Movement; we have forgotten the intellectual, imaginative, and spiritual capacities of the common person; and we have forgotten that our minds are more than our brains. Fundamentally, we have forgotten ourselves. In the process, Robinson says, we have forgotten God.

You can read the full review here:….

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Rybczynski–Home: A Short History of an Idea

Home: A Short History of an IdeaHome: A Short History of an Idea by Witold Rybczynski

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Rybczynski, Witold. Home : A Short history of an Idea. 1986

I’ve been troubling over the notion of home since our Center for Public Humanities’ excellent Humanities Symposium on the topic this past February, partially out of the interest to punch up the substance of my own presentation on the idea of Home and the Pratice of the Humanities. Partly because I’ve been troubled by the contradictions between the ethic of welcoming the stranger and alien that is so central to Christian (and Jewish, and Islamic) codes of ethics, and the fact that Christians proved to be among the most enthusiastic supporters of our country’s recent draconian policies against immigrants and refugees. A people who takes pride in family values has found it relatively easy nevertheless to support the destruction of the children and families of other people (even their fellow Christians’), and to support as well as a dramatic reduction in aid to identifiable refugees, to say nothing of the aggressive expulsion of wayfarers among us who are tagged as “illegal” because they were born somewhere else. Less painfully, I’ve been mulling over what it means for an institution of higher education to talk about itself as a family, for us to use language about our “home institution,” for us to think of our disciplines as “homes”, to have departmental homes, or indeed what it means for us in the humanities when we say we no longer feel “at home” in higher ed as it is currently practiced. I plunged into Rybczynski with these questions in mind. He did not answer my specific questions, since they are my questions and not his; he did, however, help me think a little harder about the idea of home and where it comes from.

Rybczynski’s book is, as the title of the book suggests, a history of the idea of home. At least it is partially that. In the first half of the book, Rybczynski makes clear that our current conceptions of home and all that it entails are cultural and historical constructs that tell us something about our period and not about a timeless entity. This kind of thing is obviously a given of cultural history for the past fifty or so years, but it was still good to think through this given our current obsessions of home, as well as with the dramatic transformations of home as a lived practice given changes in economy, entertainments, religion, and the like. Rybczynski approaches this topic as an architectural historian, and so much of his attention is given to space and how it is constructed, decorated (or not), and used. Among other things, he points out that the notion of the house as a private and intimate space for the nuclear family is a modern development, really almost unknown in the late middle ages, and only gradually developing through the early modern to Victorian period. Among other things, according to Rybczynski, there were no private spaces in medieval houses, even among the propertied classes—the space of the merchants or other clerics home itself being shared by servants and family alike, usually in one or at most two rooms that served as kitchen, dining room, office, and bedroom depending on the time of day.

For Rybczynski, this collective feature of the home reflected a certain cast of the late medieval or early modern mind, one that was not oriented toward intimate self-consciousness or toward private relations but towards one’s assigned place in the public world.

What mattered then was the external world, and one’s place in it. Life was a public affair, and just as one did not have a strongly developed self-consciousness, one did not have a room of one’s own. It was the medieval mind, not the absence of comfortable chairs or central heating, that explains the austerity of the medieval home. (35)

For Rybczynski, then, there is not real need for our modern conception of the home, or for our modern development of homes and neighborhoods with elaborate private spaces, precisely because our houses (and later homes) reflect the nature of the culture in which we are living. It was only later, as the consciousness of the modern European turned toward individuation that we began to conceive of the need for smaller, intimate, and more private spaces. Rybczynski put a great deal of emphasis on the development of the idea of “home” to cultural and architectural developments among the Dutch that gradually—given the relative power the Dutch exercised economically and culturally in the modern period—influenced much of the rest of northern Europe and England. For Rybczynski, the Dutch and those they influenced gave us the dominant idea of home that continues to influence how we think of it today. As he puts it, “[‘Home’] brought together the meanings of house and of household, of dwelling and of refuge, of ownership and of affection. ‘Home’ meant the house, but also everything that was in it and around it, as well as the people, and the sense of satisfaction and contentment that all these conveyed. You could walk out of the house, but you always returned home” (62). Moreover, this transformation accompanied a new sense that the home was exclusively for the nuclear family unit, and that unit was housed in a separate private space separate from and independent of the rest of society in some crucial respects. “[In the Bourgeois period] the house was no longer only a shelter against the elements, a protection against the intruder—although these remained important functions—it had become the setting for a new compact social unit: the family. With the family came isolation, but also family life and domesticity” (77).

To some degree, after establishing the new power of the idea of “home in the 17th through 19th centuries, Rybczynski’s book becomes it’s second half a more straightforward analysis of the changes to houses themselves. That it, it becomes less a cultural history of the idea of the home and more an architectural history of the houses that provide the material ground out of which homes are imagined. He provides extended discussions of the development of the idea of comfort in the Victorian period, and on the notion that houses should be efficient in the industrial period of the late 19th and early 20th century, and he reflects extensively on the potential meanings of various kinds of décor and architectural transformations in the latter part of the 20th century, most of which he seems to see as negative developments. But in these later chapters there is very little discussion of the ways in which different kinds of home/houses reflect different dimensions of being human in the modern and late modern periods of the 20th century. To the degree that they do not, I found them less compelling, as if the thread of the narrative had been dropped and Rybczynski was not sure of what to make about 20th century and the kinds of people who made the homes that they did. This is a flaw in the book’s conception and execution as a whole, it seems to me. And I have read other books, using or building on or disputing with Rybczynski that do a better job of thinking through the cultural formations of houses and homes in the late 20th century. Nevertheless, people interested in the ways that the structure and design of houses has changed over time and reflect the times in which they are built will find the entire book a worthwhile read.

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Exclusion and Embrace–Miroslav Volf

51CPp63bTcL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation by Miroslav Volf My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Some years ago my wife, Shannon, occasionally wrote reviews of classic books for a publication for
gifted high school students. Although I don’t think there is an official genre know as the re-review, I think there probably ought to be. In a day and age when most people fail to read even one book a year, much less a relatively challenging and completely serious and comprehensive work of theology, perhaps we readers ought to take it as part of our role to reintroduce books from decades past to readers for whom they will be new, if not unheard of. It’s in that spirit that I take a few minutes to write out some thoughts on Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation, a book first published in 1996. Still in print and available 22 years later from Abingdon Press, I felt Volf’s wrestling with questions of identity and the possibility of embrace spoke to our own period, if only because in the age of Trump we seem to be wrestling more starkly, and perhaps more helplessly, with the questions that drive Volf’s reflections. Can we all just get along, much less embrace, in the face of random police shootings in the name of civil order, family separations in the name of national security, lethal white unity rallies with good people on all sides on all sides, and the general belief that we are so hopelessly separated by our different identities that empathy is beside the point and, in the words of Roxane Gay, we should all just stay in our lanes?

I would like to think a work of theology could solve all this; indeed, Volf indicates that it is the real work of theologians to be about the business of helping to form subjects who could bring about the world of embrace that he imagines. There is a generosity of vision in Volf’s book that I find admirable, even compelling. His central concept of embrace is not a campfire Kumbaya version of hugging it out, but a compelling narrative of what it means, or at least ought to mean, to be a fully realized human being. For Volf, the notion of embrace is inherent in the mutual and overspilling love of the Trinity, as well as the fundamental character of God’s engagement with human beings; the incarnation is a metaphysical embrace of humanness, and the cross is an appeal to be embraced in return. Human beings are only fully realized as human beings when we actually seek to give up our separateness and embrace others as we find them. As he puts it:

the most basic thought that it [the metaphor of embrace] seeks to express is important: the will to give ourselves to others and “welcome” them, to readjust our identities to make space for them, is prior to any judgment about others, except that of identifying them in their humanity. The will to embrace precedes any “truth” about others and any construction of their “justice.” This will is absolutely indiscriminate and strictly immutable; it transcends the moral mapping of the social world into “good” and “evil”

It is unfortunate, of course, that we often experience our religion most fundamentally as an act of exclusion, whether in the practice of shunning, hellfire and brimstone preachers, or the simple and more mundane acts of making sure our church services and gatherings for fellowship feel comfortable for the already comfortable, and uncomfortable for the already discomfited or destitute. And so Volf’s work is surely a challenge to the good and the just and the true among us. He notes with approval Nietzsche’s reminder that the crucifixion was an act of the righteous:

Nietzsche underscored the connection between the self-perceived “goodness” of Jesus’ enemeies and their pursuit of his death; crucifixion was a deed of “the good and just,” not of the wicked, as we might have thought. “The good and just” could not understand Jesus because their spirit was “imprisoned in their good conscience” and they crucified him because they construed as evil his rejection of their notions of good (61)

At the same time, Volf’s prescriptions sit only uncomfortably with current conceptions of justice and empowerment, not least because the proper goal of a world formed by the concept and practice of embrace is not freedom or self-realization, at least not as these terms have been typically thought of in both our modern and post-modern socialities. Volf’s work asks us to imagine the ideal of embrace not as the coming together of two fundamentally separate individuals “hugging it out” when it comes to their differences, but rather as a complex dance in which we realize that we cannot be what we ought to be until we learn to genuinely love those that we have despised, and even more that we find it in in ourselves to love those who have despised us. As he puts it:

At the core of the Christian faith lies the persuasion that the “others” need not be perceived as innocent in order to be loved, but ought to be embraced even when they are perceived as wrongdoers. As I read it, the story of the cross is about God who desires to embrace precisely the “sons and daughters of hell.” (85).

This kind of call sounds strange to our age of tribalism, though perhaps no stranger than any age where we find it easy to love those like us, less easy to love those unlike us, and not possible at all to love those who do not love us. On the other hand, perhaps it is not so different from the famous proclamation from Martin Luther King, Jr. that “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Volf has a complicated, and I think useful, description of embrace as a fourfold process:

The four structural elements in the movement of embrace are opening the arms, waiting, closing the arms, and opening them again. For embrace to happen, all four must be there and they must follow one another on an unbroken timeline; stopping with the first two (opening the arms and waiting) would abort the embrace, and stopping with the third (closing the arms) would pervert it from an act of love to an act of oppression and, paradoxically, exclusion. The four elements are then the four essential steps of an integrated movement. (141)

This structure seems to me to both recognize and respect the integrity of others in their freedom. Embrace cannot be forced; nor is embrace limitless. Nevertheless, in Volf’s understanding, embrace is necessary to our full humanity, to forgiveness, and ultimately to justice and the task of creating the kind of society in which we might hope to live and flourish as human beings.

As I said at the outset, I think Volf’s book is worth reading since it is eerily contemporary in its impulses and in its wrestling. We can learn from him even where we disagree. I do think that if the book were written now, he might have to ask harder questions about the relationship between justice and love, between embrace and power. It’s very clear in Volf’s work that he subordinates justice to love, saying that embrace has to shape the definition of justice, that embrace is “about love shaping the very content of justice.” This is well and good, but it remains unclear that embrace is possible outside the possibility or at least the horizon of justice. From my own position situated within the matrices of power as a white male American middle class human being–all affording me pleasures and potentialities and possibilities that others do not possess in an unjust world–what does it mean for me to offer embrace in the absence of justice. Is it possible to expect embrace outside the quest or journey toward justice. Volf’s book reflects on repentance as a part of this process, but I think he could use even more thinking here in the particular ways that repentance is properly not simply a turn from the self and toward the other (ultimately God), but is also and must be a turning away from injustice–and my participation in it–toward justice, away from a life in which embrace might be colored with the expectation of inevitable betrayal and toward a life of mutuality that in some ways must accompany embrace. Although I think we would do well to wonder whether subordinating justice is any more appropriate as a Christian ethic than would be the subordinating of one person of the Trinity to another, I do think the Volf’s wrestling is worth our reckoning with. It is surely the case that 20 years later we are no closer to the beloved community that embrace would supposedly make possible than we were when Volf wrote this very good and important book. View all my reviews

Jen Pollock Michel: Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home

Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of HomeKeeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home by Jen Pollock Michel

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I sometimes think that Goodreads ought to give me two ways to rate a book: what the book wants to be on its own terms, and whether I think the book is really something someone should spend time reading. On its own terms, and trying to apply John Updike’s dictum that we shouldn’t blame a book for not achieving what it didn’t set out to achieve, I think Michel’s book is OK; probably even good. Thinking of it as a series of meditations on the nature of home, the book embodies a vision of the dignity and even sacrality of home life, home work, and house keeping–understood as making a place for ourselves and those we love, perhaps even those we don’t, in the world. In it, home becomes a metaphor for the work of the Church. And more than a metaphor. For Michel, “Christian men and women, praying for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven, work to make it possible for all human beings to flourish–now and into eternity, Housekeeping, as an important dimension of the home story, insists that an in-between life must never be an idle one. To be blessed is to be sent.” At its furthest reach, home is the be all and end all of our existence as Christian people; indeed as human beings:

As James K. A. Smith describes, we are “‘narrative animals’: we define who we are, and what we ought to do, on the basis of what story we see ourselves in” Home is that story.
And we are its witnesses.

This last statement reveals the deeper subterranean ambitions of this book, what it really wants to be despite it’s fairly modest statement that it is merely a series of “reflections.” It is a statement that the “home” is what the Christian life is about, that “HOME” write large is the Christian story.

This is a large, I would say grandiose, claim, and the book suffers for it. On the one hand, in terms of the book’s composition, it is an overextended metaphor leading the author to make claims about the centrality of home in biblical narrative and ecclesiastical life that are finally strained beyond the breaking point of belief. Moreover there is all too little critical force attached to these reflections to make the kind of theological claim that she really wants to make plausible. There is all too little mention of all the ways that the biblical narrative disrupts and unsettles the idea of home and home making. The Son of Man has no place to lay his head, as he admonishes his followers to remember. If we take the words of Jesus seriously that all those gathered around him, at times by the hundreds or thousands, are his mother, brothers, and sisters, this makes the boundaries of home so permeable as to be dispersed into the solution of humanity in a way that the metaphor of home strains to accommodate. The people of Israel most often stumbled when they preferred the comforts of home to the arduousness of obedience. In the end the book is the apotheosis of home, but I find myself suspicious of every human metaphor made into a divine thing.

I read this book in the midst of a cranky mood about the world we’re living in, and were it only for that fact I would do well to heed Updike’s advice and not review the book at all; give the book it’s two stars and move on. Nevertheless, as I write thousands of immigrants have left their homes and travelled on foot or hopping trains through unimaginable danger and deprivation to seek some degree of safety in a place called the United States–a place we call, perhaps ironically, the home of the brave. These mothers, fathers, and children come only to be imprisoned and separated at the hands of an agency we officially call Homeland Security. This disharmonious irony ought to call to mind the fact of how many evils in our world are done in the name of home and family, even of family values, whether their protection or their preservation. From the evils of Jim Crow segregation to the imperialism of Manifest Destiny, the primacy and protection of the (white) home and the (white) homeland–present or utopian–played a large, even a predominant part. Moreover, we have just lived through the wretched vision of the Baptist church struggling with whether and how to discipline a male leader who told women to stay in abusive homes for the greater glory of God. He is hardly the only one. The poet Warsan Shire reminds us home is not only the place that we long for, but the place we flee from, for our own lives and the lives of those we love:

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

I do not mean to imply by this statement or my mood, that the author or her more sympathetic readers are somehow in sympathy with the evils that have been wrought by white supremacy or by misogyny. Indeed, one of the best things about the book is the ways that it dignifies what is often, almost always, taken to be “women’s work” in the making of home. I appreciated Michel’s note that this was a fairly recent phenomenon in many ways, the responsibility of men for life at home being a theme to be found in earlier eras of human culture. (Even if, I would hasten to add, those cultures were usually no better at exhibiting the mutuality that Michel seems to long for, but never fully articulates). The book is earnest; there are scores of anecdotes and tidbits of practical advice that will help those that struggle with the difficulties of home life, and it will remind those who can hear it that all acts, great and small, are or can be acts of holiness that sanctify the world. Perhaps more importantly they are acts that aid us in the pursuit of holiness ourselves.

Nevertheless, I wonder what kind of faith it would take for us to stand on the Southern border and stretching out our arms, say, “These are my mother, brothers, and sisters.” I am quite sure I do not yet have that faith, though I am shamed to say it. I do not think a theology that divinizes our middle class American notion of home, and seeks at all costs to protect and glorify it, is going to get us there.

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Christine Perrin’s Bright Mirror

Bright MirrorBright Mirror by Christine Perrin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I thoroughly enjoyed reading my colleague Christine Perrin’s book, Bright Mirror over the past several days, and was only sorry that I had not made time for it before now. Like many folks, I am less confident of my reviewing of poetry than I am of prose, but as I read the sense of this being an observant poetry kept coming to my mind. A lot of poetry, of course, is observation, seeing us and the world in new ways, and thus helping us to see the world and ourselves in new ways as well, an act that both gives us a truer picture of the world and also an act that paradoxically changes that world through the act of vision. Christine’s poems have that quality in abundance, whether in seeing her children, her church, her nature, or herself in new ways.

But I think by “observant” I also mean that it is a poetry of the act of being observant, in multiple ways, a poetry of ritual but also a poetry of attending, of tending to the world that she sees. Some parts are about ritual as she meditates on various rites of the church. So I think I might speak of this being an “observant” poetry in the ways that one is an observant Catholic, or an observant Jew, or, in Christine’s case, the observant Orthodox–those who attend the ritual of the church or synagogue, and thereby tend to the work of the church, which is ultimately about enacting God’s work on earth. But I felt this quality in many of the lyric poems about nature, and even more so in the poems about her family, her children and about motherhood, my personal favorites of the collection. Motherhood seems less in these poems about “raising” children than about tending them, and attending to them, much as one might tend a garden in others of the poems in this collection. Tending is less an action designed to force the crop, than one that seeks to make what is already hidden there come to light, to fruition, to flourishing.

These are not tragic poems, but running through them is a sense that this flourishing is etched with the fact of impermanence, the presence of failure, the inevitability of death. Indeed, I was vaguely reminded of Wallace Steven’s sense that Death is the mother of beauty, that our experience of beauty is somehow only made possible through the fact of its, and our, impermanence. For Christine, this beauty, somewhat like the Inklings that she references throughout the collection, is a foretaste of resurrection, something that points toward an enduring love even though the flower wilts, the friend or father dies, the children grow older and in their own ways are bruised or broken agains the rocks of their own lives. In one of my favorite poems of the collection, Christine is speaking with a friend in Italy whose wife has died in childbirth:

But Luca, her husband, wants to travel
to Jerusalem, to the foot of the cross.

He wants to touch its ruined wood,
get splinters in his fingers, his lips.
That must be the way it feels

to lose a young wife. Holy Sepulchre
some call it and others,
Church of the Resurrection

I suppose it depends on the day.
When I told the guide it was hard to believe
that Golgotha and the empty tomb could be held

under one roof, he tipped his head back
and laughed at me, saying my name–
Christine–as if that was my answer

Holding Golgotha and the empty tomb together under one roof, is, of course, the work of the church, the liturgy or work of the people as we observe the rites of death and resurrection each Sunday, each day, in the celebration of the Eucharist, which is after all, the celebration of both a death and a life. This, too, is the work of poetry, and I am thankful that Christine has undertaken it.

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