Category Archives: Uncategorized

Alice Dunbar Nelson–Poet of Harrisburg

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve gotten more interested in the specific connections of the “New Negro Renaissance” that I took up in my book to my own specific location in Harrisburg.  While we tend to think of cultural movements as emanating and developing only in the major metropolitan centers (and so we equate the New Negro Renaissance Alice_Dunbar-Nelsonwith Harlem, or at most with Harlem and Chicago), it was in truth a national and even international movement, that touched culture in many different times and places.  Harrisburg, I learned a few years ago, was a well known center for jazz and a regular stop for big bands and jazz and blues musicians such as Cab Calloway and many other large and lesser lights.

This past week my colleague Jean Corey sent me a clipping (which she received via Alice Dunbar nelsonHarrisburg historian Calobe Jackson) regarding Alice Dunbar Nelson.  I had absolutely zero inkling that Dunbar Nelson was associated with Harrisburg at all, but she apparently lived here for at least a couple of years after her second marriage.  The attached clip from the Harrisburg Telegraph notes her wedding to Robert J. Nelson who worked in the state government.  There are a fairly large number of references to Alice Dunbar and Dunbar-Nelson in the Harrisburg Telegraph, even after she apparently left the city–references to speaking engagements at Harrisburg churches and the like.  I’ll have to follow up further later.

Gwendolyn Bennett of Harrisburg

Although I’ve published my book on the Harlem Renaissance, it remains one of the pleasures of the scholarly life to continue to learn and discover yet more about things I gwendoline-bennettfeel I know quite well.  One thing that has continued to interest me is the ways in which the “Harlem” Renaissance extended and had connections to many places, including my home town of Harrisburg PA.  I wrote briefly about Esther Popel Shaw’s connection to Harrisburg, and discovered, or was reminded (one of those things I think I knew, but never followed up on), that Gwendolyn Bennett, one of the most significant poets of the younger generation had a Harrisburg connection.  According to this clip noted by Harrisburg Historian, Calobe Jackson, Jr., she made the honor roll in 1917.

Gwendolyn Bennett, Honor studentAt this point I haven’t been able to determine much more than these scant biological connections, but I am intrigued with the role that regions some distance from our cultural centers end up playing a role, major or minor, in the lives of our writers and in the larger movements that they create.  I discovered a similar connection to Alice Dunbar Nelson that I’ll note in a later post.

Review of Goodbye Christ?–American Historical Review

It was nice to find another review of Goodbye Christ?, and the first I’ve seen in a print journal of some substance.  Tiffany Ruby Patterson from Vanderbilt University does a very thorough overview of the book and has some kind words to say.  Unfortunately behind a paywall for now, but you can find it here if you have access.  A couple of short excerpts:

In Goodbye Christ? Christianity, Masculinity, and the New Negro Renaissance, Peter Kerry Powers has written a deeply researched and fine-grained study of how issues of masculinity and Christianity are entangled in the writing and worldviews of African American intellectuals in the twentieth century. He argues that the New Negro Renaissance was not a secular period as some have argued but one where secularism and Christian beliefs competed in shaping the struggle for leadership. Instead he demonstrates that the period was a moment when “Christian religious practices provide the backdrop, characters, imagery, and theme of most of the important work of the Renaissance, even when they are deployed to resist the religious traditions that they reference” (15)

This study also speaks to the work that still needs to be done on Christianity, non-Christian belief systems in America, gender matters, and intellectuals.  Goodbye Christ? is grounded in excellent research and is meticulous in its arguments.  it is a must read for scholars of religion, gender, race, sexuality, and intellectual leadership.

So, must read. Do.

“Beyond The Review: Reading African American Literature and Religion”

Langston

was very happy this week to publish a new review essay in The Cresset for their Lent 2019 edition. On the one hand publishing has not lost its charge, perhaps because I do it so rarely.  But beyond that it was good to see in print my meditations on being part of a mini-movement in literary and cultural studies that has been taking religion in/and African American lit more seriously.  Besides my efforts on the Harlem Renaissance, there are many other, probably more important contributions going on, and I look at three recent works by Wallace Best, M. Cooper Harris, and Josef Sorett just to give a sense of the importance of what’s going on, besides my evaluation of the works at hand.  I also liked the challenge of trying to write 

about academic literary criticism for a non-specialist audience, and to take up the issue of why lay readers ought to read criticism, even against their better judgment.  Not an easy task, and one at which I think I only partially succeeded, but which the editor liked enough to print at any rate.  A little flavor of this aspect of the review:

harriss

“Unlike breathing or the beating of the heart, reading is a skill developed within particular cultures, each with its own values and peculiarities, and each with its own notion of excellence. At its best, literary criticism models forms of readerly virtuosity that stretch our imagination beyond the straightforward pleasures of enjoying a good story. The best criticism allows us to know literature within a cultural ecosystem of reference and connection. In the normal course of things, we pluck books from the Barnes & Noble bookshelf or the Amazon algorithm as we might pluck up a flower in a field, enjoying (or not) the pleasure of the text. Literary criticism reads the role that flower plays in the field. It considers the ways it depends on or perhaps destroys other features of the field, or perhaps the ways other cultural ecosystems consider it a weed or an invasive species to be eradicated. SorettWhile reading literary criticism is not always a walk in the park, doing so can make our pleasures more aware and engaged, delivering enhanced or other pleasures, much as we might take pleasure in not only the scent of the air, but in being able to name the flowers and the trees and understand our relationship to them and theirs to one another.”

You can read the rest of my review here…

 

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

YoungEsther

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

FLAG SALUTE

“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: http://readingreligion.org/books/give….

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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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