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Theological features of the self

I really liked this analysis in Serene Jones's Theology and Grace:

I propose five theological features of the self [that] are crucial to our creativity:  1) agency: our God-given capacity to act and hence to be creative; 2) time: our God-created capacity to imagine the future and to remember the past and--within the space of these--to compose our lives; 3) voice: our created ability to articulate and embrace our particularity, our call to be individuals with unique gifts to offer in the context of community; 4) permission: God's divine gift of forgiveness that allows us not to be perfect but to live nonetheless in grace as we creatively act and express our particularity; and 5) call: the gift of Christian vocation, the reality that we are each called to live in faithful relation to God and others in this graceful dance of creation and creativity.


Trauma & Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World

Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured WorldTrauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World by Serene Jones
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An excellent book, introducing theological thinker to trauma theory and how it intersects with our disciplines.

The most surprising chapter is that on John Calvin's Commentary on the Psalms and how Jones has used the reading of that classic text with women's support groups to respond to trauma. I feel as if I am in the midst of a big revision of my thoughts on Calvin, based on this and other reading I've done recently.

The chapter on women and reproductive loss was quite good, providing me a richer understanding of this common trauma.

The closing chapter on "Mourning and Wonder" raised some questions for a fundamental aspect of my preaching the last few years. Building on St. Irenaeus ("The glory of God is a humanity fully alive") and the works of Catherine Keller and Wendy Farley, I've emphasized how God dreams for us to be our best selves and how that is possible for us. But reading Jones I realized that the best self may not be possible for the deeply traumatized. They've lost that future, which is part of their grief and on-going trauma.

Books that compel me to rethink some central to my thought excite me. Now I face the challenge of incorporating this into my worldview, teaching, and preaching.

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Awaiting the King

Awaiting the King: Reforming Public TheologyAwaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology by James K.A. Smith
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Mixed thoughts about this third entry in the Cultural Liturgies series. One the one hand the book makes good strong arguments for liturgical practice as political theology. On the other, many chapters are detailed reviews of other scholar's arguments that got a little tiresome.

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Philip Roth

My good friend Chuck Whittington was into Philip Roth, which is what introduced me to him as a young twenty-something (he was not one of those figures we learned about in high school American literature).  I think, like many, I began with Portnoy's Complaint and read it at a good age for doing so.  It was exciting and unlike anything I'd previously read (also true for many readers it seems).  This was an era when I decided I needed to brush up on contemporary American writers and so started reading Roth, Updike, Morrison, etc.

My favourite Roth are two short stories in Goodbye, Columbus--"The Conversion of the Jews" and "Eli, the Fanatic."  I reread the first of these the other day after the news of his death.

Over the last two decades I have read a Roth novel every few years.  I've never gone out and bought a new copy of one, just picked them up at used bookstores and church and library book sales as I've encountered them.  I thought The Human Stain was okay.  I loved American Pastoral, his best novel that I've read.  The Plot Against America was enjoyable.

But I hated Sabbath's Theater and couldn't finish it.  Turned me off from trying to read more broadly in his canon.  Also not long after trying to read it I started subscribing to The Atlantic where I enjoyed Christopher Hitchens' eviscerating reviews of each Roth novel as they appeared.  I've, thus, read none of his work published in this century.

A few years ago I read The Counterlife, which was very good.  It is set in Israel/Palestine in the 1980's and explores from a fractured identity the complexities of issues surrounding that region.  That novel has been influential in my own understanding of the conflict, and I recommend it to people.

One of these days I'll read more of his novels from the 1970's and 80's.  Since I'm a Library of America subscriber, I assume that eventually I'll get mailed one of their volumes.


Tom Wolfe

I hadn't yet taken the time to write anything about the prominent authors who have died recently, but I can't bring myself to write about them in the same post, as they didn't get along with one another.  So, Tom Wolfe first.

I read A Man in Full when it came out in 1998.  That's back when big releases were major news and got the cover of weekly news magazines.  There was much press for that book, so I bought it and read it.  I didn't spend much money on hardcover books back then in my poor grad school days.  I went to pull my copy off of  the shelf, but it doesn't appear to be there (I don't remember getting rid of it).  

What I remember most from that novel was a chapter in which one of the characters was just having one of those classically bad days and how this connected to an exploration of Stoicism.

I also read Bonfire of the Vanities after that and long after its period of great popularity.  Both are big, bold stories that reveal details of the times and locations in which they are set.  


Rites Talk: The Worship of Democracy

Continuing blogging about James K. A. Smith's Awaiting the King: Reforming Public TheologyHere's the last post.  

Smith contends that the political is "a way of life, a constellation of loves and longing and beliefs bundled up in communal rhythms, routines, and rituals."

Drawing upon Augustine, he contends that earthly politics is a penultimate concern, but it has a way of trying to be an ultimate concern.  I do find this refreshing in this particularly difficult political age, a good reminder that my faith and values are my ultimate concern.

Similar to the criticisms of Michael Sandel (who is not quoted) he believes we need a vision of the good life, which is lacking in much liberal democracy (or has been lost, as it was part of the tradition).  

This chapter furthers his analysis that politics is already religious, a liturgy that is shaping and often misshaping us.

He references the work of Jeffrey Stout that "pragmatism is democratic traditionalism."  I want to read this work.

Christians cannot be separated from contemporary political concerns.  He writes, "to seek the welfare of the city precisely because we are called to cultivate creation."


The Optimist's Daughter

The Optimist's DaughterThe Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It is difficult for me to understand this novel as a Pulitzer Prize Winner. Yes, Welty writes beautiful sentences and paragraphs. The dialogue of small town Southerners at a funeral is quite good. And the exploration of the main character, Laurel, has depth and insight. But her foil, Fay the stepmother, is so one dimensional that it robs the story of real depth. Fay needed to be a complete character herself for this story to completely work.

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The Land of Green Plums

The Land of Green PlumsThe Land of Green Plums by Herta Müller
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A dark, despairing novel about life in Romania under the Ceaușescu dictatorship. Based on some real life incidents Muller, the winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize, writes about a group of four college students who are targeted by the secret police and hounded. The novel focuses on the little things, the objects in life that provide consolation, reveal absurdity, or lead to despair. The overriding question of the novel seems to be: Is friendship really possible in a dictatorship?

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Public theology

"And what if the political is not just some procedural gambit to manage our mundane affairs but an expression of creational desire and need, a structural feature of creaturely life that signals something about the sociality of human nature?"

I've begun reading Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology, the third volume in the Cultural Liturgies project of James K. A. Smith, and I found the Introduction to be quite good.  I'm looking forward to the rest.

He is writing about how politics is inherently religious and religious is inherently political and what is the best way for the church to do public theology.  A few highlights from the Intro.

"While we often speak of the public 'square,' the metaphor is antiquated and unhelpful. . . .  The political is less a space and more a way of life; the political is less a realm and more of a project."

"The polis is a formative community of solidarity . . . political participation requires and assumes . . . a citizenry with habits and practices for living in common and toward a certain end, oriented toward a telos."

"Politics is a repertoire of formative rites."

"What unites a 'people,' an 'us,' is a project, something we're after together.  We collaborate in a common life insofar as we find goods to pursue in common; and we establish institutions, systems, and rhythms that reinforce the pursuit of those goods."

"Worship is the 'civics' of the city of God."

He believes Christians need to cultivate "a sort of engaged but healthy distance rooted in our specifically eschatological hope, running counter to progressivist hubris, triumphalistic culture wars, and despairing cynicism."


Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology

Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer TheologyRadical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology by Patrick S. Cheng
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Cheng contends that "Christian theology is fundamentally a queer enterprise" what with doctrines like the Trinity, incarnation, etc. More than a simple overview or introduction to queer theologies, the book itself is a survey of all the traditional major doctrines of systematic theology around the organizing theme of radical love. He defines this as "a love so extreme that it dissolves our existing boundaries." Cheng writes that "Christian theology can be understood as a three-part drama about radical love." For example the Trinity is understood as an internal community of radical love, Jesus as the bearer of radical love, the church as the external community of radical love, etc. I appreciate some of these formulations and will incorporate them into my own rhetoric.

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