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Jacob's Wound: Homoerotic Narrative in the Literature of Ancient Israel

Jacob's Wound: Homoerotic Narrative in the Literature of Ancient IsraelJacob's Wound: Homoerotic Narrative in the Literature of Ancient Israel by Theodore W. Jennings Jr.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In this very well argued book Ted Jennings claims that "same-sex eroticism in Israel is inseparably connected to Israel's Yahwism. It is no extraneous import but something deeply and inextricably embedded in the religion of Israel."

Jennings begins in the obvious place--the sagas of David, Jonathan, and Saul--and from there considers stories of Samuel, Elijah, and Elisha, elements of the prophetic tradition (particularly Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel), and then the stories of Joseph, Moses, and Jacob, before wrapping up with Ruth. In other words, here is a systematic overview of much of the Hebrew scriptures demonstrating the role that same-sex eroticism plays in the development of the biblical tradition. Jennings credits same-sex eroticism as being the key element that moves YHWH from a violent warrior God to a God of steadfast love and compassion. In other words, the key essence of the biblical tradition arises from the experience of homoeroticism.

Along the way, Jennings' interpretation makes sense of a wide range of passages, including some of the strangest in scripture. He makes far more sense of them than other interpretations I've read.

Also along the way, Jennings deals with a longstanding false idea in Western culture that Greece was the culture most accepting of homoeroticism while Israel forbade it. Instead, homoeroticism is key the Israelite religion predating its significant emergence in Greek culture. Plus, it is a homoeroticism based upon the desire of bottom rather than the activity of the top, which is how he characterizes Greek culture.

He shows how the Holiness Code in Leviticus is very late to the tradition and doesn't fit a wide range of stories from the sagas (not just those dealing with homoeroticism). He argues that the Holiness Code is borrowed from Zoroastrianism and should not be understood as reflective of Hebrew culture prior to exile.

This is an excellent book; I highly recommend it.

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Exit West

Exit WestExit West by Mohsin Hamid
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Reading this book during the nights when you can't sleep in Omaha because of the ridiculous noise from fireworks heightened the experience.

But I was not as impressed by this book as it seems most people have been. I found the writing style too spare. The conceit of the doors as a way to comment on the current global migration crisis was intriguing, but Saeed and Nadia's relationship ups and downs did not engage me.

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Parable of the Sower

Parable of the Sower (Earthseed, #1)Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Not set in a post-apocalyptic future as is so common, but in the midst of social decline and disruption brought on by climate change, growing income inequality, a rise in drug use, violence, and poverty. Reading the book right now was frightening.

Lauren, the hero, grows up in the 2020's in a walled neighborhood of eleven homes in southern California where it rains once every six years. The neighbors must work together to defend their neighborhood, grow their own food, and educate themselves. Some are tempted away when a corporate town opens nearby, promising security but a form of wage slavery associated with Steinbeck novels or the Pullman Strike.

Lauren rejects the religion of her Baptist minister father as a new religion, called Earthseed, is revealed to her. For Earthseed, God is change and change is inevitable. But change can be affected by what one does to prepare for it and respond to it. She is something of a Cassandra in her neighborhood, but becomes a leader of people by the end.

There is a second Earthseed book, which I will soon have to read, as this one left me hanging and wanting more. I'm curious that it has not been made into a Netflix or Hulu series, as it so grippingly fits our cultural moment.

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Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the BardoLincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Given the rave reviews and awards, I expected to relish this novel and simply did not. The book exhibits great craftsmanship and ingenuity in how it is written, but the story itself did not capture me, even repulsed me at times. One thing that repulsed me was its mythology of afterlife which bears no resemblance to anything in Christian thought. Maybe that was on purpose, but it seemed to me that a rich meditation on death and loss (if that was the actual goal) would have made more sense within some more recognizably conventional understanding.

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The Nature of Doctrine

The Nature of DoctrineThe Nature of Doctrine by George A. Lindbeck
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of those classics I finally read. And one that was part of the milieu of other theologians who have deeply influenced my own thinking.

For Lindbeck, learning a religion is like learning a language, a skill that you develop. Take this sentence for instance, "In short, intelligibility comes from skill, not theory, and credibility comes from good performance, not adherence to independently formulated criteria."

I long ago adopted this basic framework--skill and communal practices and not propositional belief. And the non-foundationalist epistemology.

I'm glad there are people who think so deeply as this and develop the basic theory that undergirds what I do.

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Resurrecting Wounds: Living in the Afterlife of Trauma

Resurrecting Wounds: Living in the Afterlife of TraumaResurrecting Wounds: Living in the Afterlife of Trauma by Shelly Rambo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The story of Doubting Thomas from the Gospel of John is the standard gospel lectionary text for the Second Sunday of Easter, and we usually approach it as a text about knowledge, doubt, and faith. Shelly Rambo invites a different reading focusing instead on the wounded body of the resurrected Jesus. What does it mean to carry wounds into the resurrection? Why does Jesus expose the wounds to the disciples and invite Thomas to touch? Why has theology failed (with few exceptions) to explore the wounds in this scene?

These fascinating questions are dealt with in this vivid exploration of the Gospel story. Along the way we encounter a contemporary French television show about ghosts, John Calvin's attempts to ignore the carnal aspects of the story, the healing scar of Macrina and her brother Gregory of Nyssa's struggle to understand it, W. E. B. DuBois in the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto, Delores Williams's concept of wilderness, a smudging ritual in a care group of combat veterans, and Caravaggio's brilliant painting of the Gospel story. Among others.

This is a rich theological account of how we can continue living beyond trauma. We must surface our wounds and engage them safely in community where healing touch helps us integrate the wounds into new life.

Note: This was an interesting read just after De la Torre's Embracing Hopelessness, for I don't think this book succumbed to his critiques.

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Great Plains Bison

Great Plains BisonGreat Plains Bison by Dan O'Brien
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What have we done? This well-written book is about one of the great ecological catastrophes in human history--how human beings have in the last few centuries ruined the thousands years old ecosystem of the Great Plains. Not only did we slaughter the bison to near extinction and commit genocide against the nations of the Plains, we ruined the entire habitat with our plowing, irrigation, pesticides, GMO crops, etc. If you thought the sad part of this story ended a hundred years ago, and we began improving things after the Dust Bowl, O'Brien's book will surprise, for the catastrophe continues apace.

But he is a good writer, with a beautiful imagination, so this is not a depressing read. Hopefully it is a call to action for those of us who love the Plains.

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Embracing Hopelessness

Embracing HopelessnessEmbracing Hopelessness by Miguel A. de la Torre
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book challenges some of the core elements of my own theology and ministerial practice. Jurgen Moltmann's theology of hope helped me out of my deepest depression and gave shape to my ministry, particularly when I pastored the Cathedral of Hope, a predominately LGBT congregation. De La Torre considers the theology of hope a theology of the privileged that lulls people away from facing how awful reality actually is and the revolutionary praxis necessary to work for justice.

The methodology of the book is interesting. Each chapter explores a traumatic episode from history, with De La Torre traveling to a location--Sand Creek, Dachau, Charlottesville, the Border, etc.--with another theologian to explore a range of theological questions that these moments of injustice and violence expose.

At first I didn't care much for his style. I felt he wasn't engaging Moltmann in genuine argument. And that he was tilting at straw men, spending lots of time criticizing Hegel's philosophy of history, which I can't imagine many people believe anymore.

But near the end the book improved. The best chapter is entitled "F*ck It."

I am not fully persuaded by De La Torre to abandon my core beliefs and practices, but I am now compelled to hear these criticisms and revise accordingly. The book lacks any discussion of resurrection, which is the key Christian idea in response to catastrophe, which left me confused about De La Torre's overall approach.

Also, he makes much of turning traditional systematic theology on its head with this third volume of a trilogy addressing the issues that normally would be addressed first, whereas he dealt with ethics and praxis first. But this isn't new. Plenty of theologians have written this way in the last generation or two. James McClendon, for instance, in his three volume theology began with ethics.

Finally, I thought he could benefit from an exploration of William James's pragmatic eschatology, meliorism, which is neither optimistic nor pessimistic and was itself worked out in the crucible of the Civil War.

Here is a good summary paragraph from near the end of the book:

"When I consider the hellish conditions under which brown bodies are forced to live, I simply lack the luxury or privilege to hopefully wait with Motlmann for God's future promise to materialize. Too many dead and broken bodies obscure my view of the eschaton. Instead, I call for storming the very gates of Hell not at some future time, but now. Motlmann's theology of hope is in effect a theology of optimism based on a God of process derived from trust in a certain biblical interpretation rooted in linear progressive thinking issuing from the Eurocentric modernity project. And while such a hope may be comforting for middle-class Euroamerican Christians, it falls short and sounds hollow for the disenfranchised."

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Church as Polis

In the second chapter of Awaiting the King, James K. A. Smith discusses the political nature of Christian worship, which he describes as "a public ritual centered on--yea, led by--an ascended King."  As a corollary to this, "Implicit in the practices of Christian worship is an economics, a sociology, a politics."

One of the most puzzling things for many of us clergy is how we are deeply trained to understand church and worship this way--these are not new or radical ideas in theology or liturgics--but how so many congregants seem completely unformed to understand church and worship in this way.  How did this disconnect arise?

Smith is also making the point that politics (and many other aspects of our culture) are also religious--they are rituals trying to form us in certain ways.  So if the church cedes the political terrain, it is actually allowing forces outside the church to shape people according to narratives that are not the churches.

I like this quote from Richard Bauckham, "Worship . . . is the source of resistance to the idolatries of the public world."

What was frustrating about this (and some subsequent chapters) is that he spent much of the time simply reviewing the analysis and arguments of someone else, here Oliver O'Donovan.  

A key theme of the chapter is that "The politics of worship is tied to the renewal of moral agency of the people of God, who are formed to be sent."  Unlike some thinkers who focus on the church as polis, Smith reminds us that we aren't separate from the world, we are in fact sent into it to make our mark and try to influence politics and culture for God.

Smith is mainly writing to other NeoCalvinists (Reformed Evangelicals).  Some of his arguments were broadly embraced by Liberal Protestants in the 19th century.  For instance, there is this sentence, also a quote from O'Donovan, which sounded a lot to me like the Congregationalists of the 19th century who were abolitionists, temperance campaigners, suffragists, etc.--"Rule out the political questions and you cut short the proclamation of God's saving power; you leave people enslaved where they ought to be set free from sin--their own sin and others."

The chapter includes a surprising analysis of Cormac McCarthy's magnificent apocalyptic novel The Road.  Smith asks, "Where did these characters [the father and son who are main characters] come from who shine like lights in this brutal darkness?"  He doesn't read McCarthy as claiming they have a natural goodness--rather, they were formed in some way.  What liturgy then shaped them?  Smith cites numerous examples of sacramentality referenced in the novel.

In a side bar on the liturgical calendar he points out "The Christian year is a political rite that invites us to reinhabit the life of our King and learn what it might look like to imitate the strange politics of his kingdom here in the meantime."

He rightly points out near the end of the chapter that worship is not directed against any specific regime but against the entire notion that politics is ultimate for us as human beings.