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Red Sorghum

Red SorghumRed Sorghum by Mo Yan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Set in a small village surrounded by fields of red sorghum mostly during the Japanese invasion of China, this magnificent story is filled with rich characters and delightful episodes, all while detailing the horrors of war for the village people. The only reason I failed to give it five stars was because I thought the final two sections were confusingly organized (the entire book is non linear in its narrative style, which is fine until those sections) and seemed to me to get distracted by some minutiae instead of completing some of the main story. But that said, I still greatly enjoyed the novel. Among its unique features is a section narrated from the perspective of one of the village dogs. I've enjoyed the novel so much I intend to read more of Mo's novels in the years to come.

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The Power and Vulnerability of Love

The Power and Vulnerability of Love: A Theological AnthropologyThe Power and Vulnerability of Love: A Theological Anthropology by Elizabeth O'Donnell Gandolfo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Gandolfo argues that vulnerability is not only a basic human trait, it is the source of anxiety that leads
to suffering and causes suffering in others. After an analysis based upon maternal experience, she discusses Christian theological and spiritual responding to vulnerability and then practices of dealing with vulnerability.

While I felt the first section was overly long and often redundant, sections two and three were quite good, in particular her discussion of incarnation and the natal experience of Jesus.

She also brilliantly draws from a great diversity of thinkers--Paul Tillich & Delores Williams, Alfred North Whitehead and Martha Nussbaum, Nicholas of Cusa and David Hume, Julian of Norwich and Edward Schillebeeckx, etc.

I also greatly appreciated her discussion of privilege as our attempt to control our vulnerability. This section will be quite useful to ministers because she gives a theological description. Remember just this week my denomination passed a resolution calling for ministers to receive ongoing training in their privilege. Since I volunteered to help organize that for the Nebraska conference, I'll use her work as a means to approach the topic.

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Truth Will Rise

Some Willimon quotes from Who Lynched Willie Earle?

Race is a socially constructed, psychologically rooted attempt to name humanity through human designations.  Christians defiantly believe that our identity and our human significance are bestowed upon us not by our culture, family, or skin color but rather given us in baptism.

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The origins of Southern fundamentalist Christianity have their roots in the creation of this disincarnate "empty space" sealed off from theological scrutiny.

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In a critique of how church often functions he writes "church is made into a font of positive feelings, a sabbatical for the soothing of anxiety, healing of stress, a place to receive placid balance, and a retreat where we go to pray for those in the hospital."

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In a society of racial denial, blaming and falsehood, rituals that enable repentance are great gifts that the church offers.  When so many white Americans adamantly maintain our innocence, our guiltlessness, it's a remarkable witness to be in a community where sin is admitted, confessed, and given to God.

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Much of my church family wallows in the mire of anthropological moral, therapeutic deism, a "god" whom the modern world has robbed of agency, an ineffective godlet who allegedly cares but never gets around to doing anything.  Such a "god" is an idol who is inadequate to the challenge of our racism.

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Christians answer to a theological vocation whereby we must demonstrate to an unbelieving world, by our little lives and in our pitiful churches that, in spite of us, nevertheless there is hope because God is able.

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We preach about race as those who believe we have seen as much of God as we hoped to see in his world when we look upon a brown-skinned Jew from Nazareth.

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His critique on much worship and pastoral care is spot on:

Should we be surprised that a racially accommodated church reduces Christian worship to the cultivation of subjectivity and interiority, presenting the Christian faith as a therapeutic technique for acquiring personal, individual meaning and joy in life?

Also,

Though moral, therapeutic deism takes the guts out of preaching, truth, smothered by therapeutic mush and self-pitying theodicy, will rise.

 


Who Lynched Willie Earle? Preaching to Confront Racism

Who Lynched Willie Earle?: Preaching to Confront RacismWho Lynched Willie Earle?: Preaching to Confront Racism by William H. Willimon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I heard Willimon speak on this issue at the Festival of Homiletics in May. He was angry and sassy and is so in the book. This is a vital text for preachers. A clarion call to preaching as God's weapon to defeat white supremacy.

Willimon tells the story of a lynching in his home county when he was one and how one local pastor preached about it. He uses this to explore the ongoing issues of white supremacy and its corruption of the church and gives encouragement and advice for how preachers must respond.

I'll post some quotes and details later.

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Devil on the Cross

Devil on the CrossDevil on the Cross by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This novel was written on toilet paper while the author was in prison and is the first modern novel written in Gikuyu. Ngũgĩ is often mentioned as a likely Nobel winner plus I had read about this novel in a work of postcolonial theology. So I was looking forward to it and was disappointed.

The story critiques capitalism and colonialist exploitation but it does so in a heavy handed way that reminded me of The Man Who Was Thursday or The Great Divorce--novels that get too heavy handed and preachy in making their points.

There were engaging moments and the final chapter was searingly powerful.

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The New Abolition

The New Abolition: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Black Social GospelThe New Abolition: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Black Social Gospel by Gary Dorrien
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After emancipation leaders in the Black church had to cope with new realities--segregation and lynching. This is the story of the generation that developed the Black Social Gospel and laid the groundwork for the liberation efforts of the Civil Rights generation of the middle twentieth century. Besides DuBois, many of the people covered in this volume are mostly unknown. And the stories of political struggles and personal relationships equal the stories of the early centuries of Christianity as the difficult but good work is done to create a theology relevant to the people.

The Black church may have saved Christianity by focusing our attention on the liberation of Jesus and expunging our modern theology of its inherent white supremacy. This is part of the story of how that happened.

I have only two complaints with the book. I did not like the organization. Chapters might cover 100 pages with chapter sections running to 30 pages. Better to break into more chapters. And the book was neither a linear chronology nor a series of foci on major figures but a strange blending of the two which was at times confusing to me.

The very final section includes a very good theological analysis of the cross in this tradition (borrowing heavily from James Cone). I wish the author had included more theological reflection like this throughout the volume.

Overall, a magisterial work and well worth the months of effort I put into it.

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Deadline Artists

Deadline Artists: America's Greatest Newspaper ColumnsDeadline Artists: America's Greatest Newspaper Columns by John P. Avlon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Off and on for the last three years this has been my downstairs-bathroom-reading. A delightful and informative collection of great newspaper columns that illustrates the artistry of this genre. Two I have remembered most. One by Charles McDowell in which he wrote about the day that Nixon resigned and how normal it was for most people. That column is a powerful statement of the strength of our Republic. And the other is Jimmy Breslin's column about Parkland Hospital on the day that JFK was assassinated. Both columns tell the story of major events by looking at minor characters.

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