Volume > Issue > Briefly: September 1992

September 1992

Womanspirit: Reclaiming the Deep Feminine in Our Human Spirituality

By Susan Muto

Publisher: Crossroad

Pages: 179

Price: $15.95

Review Author: Janice Daurio

Womanspirit attempts a de­fense of the proposition that true feminism is not only com­pletely compatible with the Gospel and Christian faith, but demanded by them. In con­tributing to the writing of the National Council of Catholic Bishops’ still floundering pas­toral letter on women, Susan Muto interviewed many wom­en, and she reports on the ex­perience of some of them here, though the majority of report­ing is on her own life. Indeed, the structure of the book is autobiographical.

A Christian woman writ­ing a book of Christian femi­nism undertakes a daunting task. If she adopts a narrative style, as Muto does, then she must be able to distinguish be­tween how a certain person who happens to be female re­sponds to a certain situation from how a woman as woman responds. Muto does not ade­quately make this distinction.

If a Christian woman seeks to make a statement about Christian feminism by writing autobiographically, it must be clear how doing so serves to describe and define Christian feminism. If it is not clear, the autobiography is merely self-indulgent Several incidents the author relates are irrelevant to Christian feminism, even broadly conceived.

Moreover, her language is often trite: “We must forget the past with its burden of failure and guilt, if we want to feel the lightness of spring.”

The similes and metaphors are appalling. Here is an ex­ample from a letter she wrote to her father: “If I tell you not to worry about me, I know my words will be like peas bounc­ing off a wall because I know you’ll worry anyway.” Peas bouncing off a wall?

Clichés abound. “Without my church I would not be the person I am now….” This is from an indented paragraph, of which there are quite a few, but with most of them it is not clear which are from her in­terviewees and which are her own, if any. In addition to source reporting deficiencies, there are sometimes meaning deficiencies. It is not enough to report on women who have been hurt by men and buffeted by life. Why is the author re­porting this? What does this information have to do with Christian feminism? These simple questions are not answered.

This book fails, for the au­thor neither speaks articulately nor writes appealingly.

Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare?

By James H. Cone

Publisher: Orbis

Pages: 358

Price: $22.95

Review Author: William Fitzgerald

What Gunnar Myrdal called the “American Dilem­ma” in his classic 1944 study challenges America in ways even more complex than it did a half-century ago. The Ameri­can donkey has been ham­mered with the metaphorical two-by-four of Los Angeles’s response to the Rodney King verdict. Public attention is be­ing paid. One recent penetrat­ing study that can help us understand the events in L.A., where we are in American race relations, and how we got there, is James H. Cone’s Mar­tin & Malcolm & America. As a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York and an African American, he brings a combination of training and background that deserves the attention of all who strive to understand and act in our present crisis.

Cone’s work advances the theme of a “convergence” of thinking in the later years of the brief lives of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. In the early years of his public life, King was vigorously opposed to Malcolm and the Black Mus­lims. However, Cone reveals that in his Detroit speech of June 23, 1963, King “expressed his admiration for a ‘magnifi­cent new militancy’ in the black community that was to a large extent due to the influ­ence of Malcolm.” Yet Cone does clearly acknowledge the contrast in faith commitments of the two: “While each ap­pealed to the practical side of their faith commitments, the bottom line for both was faith and not pragmatism. Malcolm’s faith was defined by the par­ticularity of his blackness and Martin’s by the universality of his humanity.”

On the one hand, Cone persuasively articulates the latter-day movement of Martin toward Malcolm: “With love at the center of his theology, Martin believed that nonvio­lence had the moral power to ‘awaken the conscience of the nation’ and thereby enable whites and Negroes to create a just and beloved community in America. After Selma,…Mar­tin’s thinking…was character­ized by the shattering of his dream and his movement slowly toward the philosophy of Malcolm X.” On the other hand, Malcolm’s movement toward Martin is evidenced by Malcolm’s pilgrimage to Mecca and his conversion to accept­ance of the potential for good­ness in whites.

Cone is not contending that Martin abandoned the primacy of his identity as a Christian. What Cone does see is a heightened awareness by King of the salience of black­ness for urban blacks.

For King the Negro was “God’s instrument to save America.” King’s nonviolent action crusade manifested his commitment to the centrality of love. Yet at the end of his life, Martin could no longer totally reject Malcolm’s call for “self-defense.” Martin began to re­alize that the call to nonviolent resistance to which he had responded so magnanimously might not be the only call appropriate to the circum­stances of the urban ghettos of the North.

As a young man during World War II, Congressman George Brown withdrew from a conscientious objectors’ camp, enlisted in the army, and became a combat infan­tryman, moving from evangeli­cal pacifism to participation in violent means to resist Nazi Germany. Such a 180 degree change did not occur in King’s short life, nor does it seem likely had he lived beyond 1968. Nonetheless, the adop­tion of violent means in de­fense of the innocent victims of Nazism is an example of how even a principled advocate of nonviolent resistance might be moved to adopt violent means.

Myrdal’s “American Di­lemma” is crucial and personal to each one of us. Cone’s book can help in our struggle to dis­cover appropriate strategies and tactics aimed at fulfilling Martin’s dream and relieving the trauma of Malcolm’s nightmare of racial animosity.

The Gospel According to Jesus

By Stephen Mitchell

Publisher: HarperCollins

Pages: 310

Price: $23

Review Author: Charles A. Coulombe

The world of biblical crit­icism trembles on the threshold of a perestroika potentially more disruptive than that which ended the Soviet empire. Apparently, Fr. Jose O’Calla­ghan has found that fragments of the Gospel of St. Matthew and St. Paul’s Epistles to Tim­othy were discovered in Cave 7 at Qumran — thus definitive­ly dating these documents as having been written in the lifetime of their traditionally named authors. The research of the late Dead Sea Scrolls expert Fr. Jean de Carmignac tends in the same direction; when at last the Institut Catho­lique consents to its publica­tion, it will be quite an event. Commenting on these devel­opments, Giuseppe Cardinal Saldanini said on January 16 of this year that “this find…sus­tains the Christian stance that does not separate the Christ of Faith from the historical Jesus. What it does do is [affirm] that Jesus of Nazareth is none other than the Christ of Faith and the true Son of God.”

More than this, however, it destroys a myth dear to many since the Enlightenment: that the Jesus of History is not the Christ of Faith, that, in the words of H.G. Wells, “the re­ligion of Jesus was corrupted into the religion about Jesus.” This presupposition underlies much Unitarian, liberal Protes­tant, and Catholic “New” theology.

But Bible reductionism is scarcely a new phenomenon. Thomas Jefferson himself cre­ated a version of the Gospel in which all the miraculous and “unreasonable” events had been excised, in pursuance of the rationalism which (pace many political conservatives) underlay the thought of the more influential Founding Fathers. It is an exercise which has brought great comfort to individuals whose worldview would be overturned by the eruption of the Divine into the physical world and the conse­quent truth of Christian doc­trine.

In keeping with the tradi­tion, consecrated by the author of the Declaration of Inde­pendence, of cooking up one’s own Bible to fit one’s own Jesus, Stephen Mitchell has brought us The Gospel According to Jesus, subtitled A New Trans­lation and Guide to His Essential Teachings for Believers and Unbe­lievers. The dust jacket pro­claims: “Mitchell has retained only the authentic sayings and doings of Jesus, and has omit­ted the passages added by the early church. Gone is the ‘Jesus’ who preaches hellfire and damnation, in contrast to the authentic Jesus’ teaching about God’s absolute forgive­ness and love. Gone are the passages which call Jesus the Son of God, in contrast to Jesus’ teaching that all people can become sons (or daughters) of God as they become like God…. What is left is…an im­age of Jesus as…a great spirit­ual teacher….”

Mitchell, a Zen adept, ad­mits his dependence on subjec­tive criteria. He says that when we read about the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son or other passages of which he approves, “we know we are in the presence of the truth…. Here in the essential sayings, we have words coming from the depths of the human heart…words that can shine into a Muslim’s or a Buddhist’s or a Jew’s heart just as power­fully as into a Christian’s.” By this last, of course, he means words acceptable to such folk, though whether they would appreciate similar editing of the Koran, the Nikayas, or the Talmud to make them palata­ble to Christians is another question.

Mitchell removes all refer­ences to messianism, to the Resurrection, to Christ’s deal­ing with hypocrites. He egre­giously alters the passage “anyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to the judgment…” to anyone who hates his brother. Why? Be­cause of some recently discov­ered Syriac text moldering in an Ethiopian monastery? No. Because in his view Christ’s teaching on this point “is mis­taken. Anger is a natural emo­tion, a pure energy, which can be selfish and destructive but can also be generous and life-affirming.” This is not the Gospel according to Jesus, it is the Gospel according to Ste­phen — of itself worth no more than that according to Charles, Sandra, Tom, Dick, or Harry. In a word, it is the user-friendly, nonthreatening Christ of the film Jesus de Mon­treal. Like that rather sad epic, this Jesus comes replete with fables about His supposed bastardy.

But one can understand the need for this sort of thing. The real Christ is dangerous and untame. He defies our laws: born of a Virgin, tran­substantiating bread and wine into His own Body and Blood, passing on the power to do so to a select group of men, res­urrecting from the dead, as­cending into Heaven, and re­maining with His Church unto today. He demands our sub­mission, and our incorporation into Him, if we are to escape the ruin brought us by our first ancestor. In a word, He is ter­ribly uncomfortable.

So, He must be cut down into human bite-size, echoing conventional platitudes so that He may be placed in the hu­manistic pantheon — and ig­nored.

To show that I am not moved by purely “sectarian” motives, I will give the penultimate word to Richard Smoley, reviewing this book in Gnosis: “Translators are traitors, as the proverb goes, and it is to Mitchell’s credit that he is at least honest about his editorializing. All same I can’t find much about his version to recommend it. You would save a lot of money by buying a cheap used copy of your favor­ite translation, cutting it up, and pasting down the parts you liked. (That’s more or less what Mitchell did.) You proba­bly won’t learn much about Jesus. But you might learn something about yourself.”

We certainly learn a great deal about Mitchell. If, as the dust jacket declares, “Mitchell does for the Gospels what he did for the Tao Te Ching,” one can only hope that the Taoists are possessed of the infinite patience often associated with them.

Religion and Economic Justice

By Michael Zweig

Publisher: Temple University Press

Pages: 252

Price: $34.95

Review Author:

This work challenges the complacency of all who consid­er themselves religious. The editor has assembled an im­pressive group of contributors, whose knowledge of Scripture and economics can help sharp­en the way we think about capitalism.

The disintegration of the Communist world has left only the churches to speak for the poor and the disenfranchised, and they are beginning to do so eloquently, to the dis­comfort of many who hold power.

Religion and Economic Justice comes down hard on transna­tional corporations which have no loyalty to nations or work­ers, and on U.S. foreign aid policy which comes with strings, including military equipment developing nations neither need nor can afford.

This book suggests that our preconceptions be radically changed to make human de­velopment the goal of econom­ic development, rather than the reverse, which seems prev­alent in much of current eco­nomic thought.

How My Mind Has Changed

By James M. Wall & David Heim

Publisher: Eerdmans

Pages: 184

Price: $8.95

Review Author:

It’s always fun to see ma­jor theological figures explain the transitions in their thought.

Peter Berger, a political conservative and theological liberal, has become so upset by the political leftism of the lib­eral Protestant milieu that he’s quit the Lutheranism of his upbringing to become “eccle­siastically homeless.”

Berger plausibly complains that liberal Protestantism is in the grip of the New Class. But three times Berger tells us this is a “rising” class — as if we were still living in the heyday of George McGovern and Bella Abzug.

Also still reacting to an old specter is Richard John Neu­haus. Involved in “the Move­ment” of the 1960s, he summa­rizes his various, largely lauda­tory, breaks with it. Was he perhaps too long and too deeply committed to it to let go of what was undoubtedly a painful experience? Yet, there are intimations here that set­tling old accounts is not all that important. Shortly after writing this essay, the Luther­an Neuhaus became a Roman Catholic priest. Will this transi­tion bring with it new vistas?

Robert Bellah has journey­ed from individualism and ec­clesiastical homelessness to the Episcopal Church. Once en­amored of a “post-traditional world,” he now believes that “only living traditions make it possible to have a world at all.” While Bellah sees his An­glican commitment as “set­tled,” he doesn’t exclude fur­ther developments; and so one may wonder if, like other Can­terbury pilgrims hungry for tradition, he will find himself only half-filled and look across the Tiber to a more traditional see.

Not if he heeds dissenting Catholic theologian Richard McCormick, who seems to have left the Holy See in spirit, and who looks to the Lambeth Conference for “enlighten­ment” (even true-blue Angli­cans would snicker at that).

To Lutheran George Lindbeck, the “unmediated aggior­namento” of someone like Mc­Cormick merely amounts to “letting the world set the church’s agenda.” McCormick should attend to one of Ber­ger’s insights. Of certain churches, Berger says: “They ‘read the signs of the times.’ It does not seem to occur to them that they might write them.” That Berger, who is hung up on politics, can’t fathom this theologically, leaves him homeless; that Lindbeck can, might account, in this era of a reinvigorated Catholicism, for his self-avowed “tilt toward Rome” (perhaps also for Stan­ley Hauerwas’s bout of Roman Fever, though he doesn’t get into that in his essay here).

Well along the road to Rome (or is it Constantinople?) is Methodist Thomas Oden, who doesn’t mind being called “Protestantism’s most Catholic theologian.” Oden finds him­self “in the comic position of publicly debating liberal Catho­lics and suddenly realizing that they are consorting with the old liberal Protestant strumpets of my seedy past, while I am setting forth their own tradi­tional arguments from their magisterium.”

It is comic, perhaps tragi­comic, that faded Catholics such as McCormick should be fated to live out their last years witnessing prominent Protes­tant theologians looking loving­ly toward Rome.

Holy Bible. New Revised Standard Version. Giant Print


Publisher: Thomas Nelson

Pages: 1,730

Price: $29.95

Review Author:

Society is becoming a bit more sensitive to the plight of the visually impaired, among whom not only the aged are numbered. Although people are reading less, they are watching video display ter­minals more and more, and so ophthalmologists have no lack of patients complaining of eye strain, which, whatever the cause, can be severe, ongoing, and even debilitating.

Reading books is easier on the eyes than reading off VDTs, and increasing the type sizes of books is one palliative for people with eye troubles. And so this giant print edition of the Bible will be welcome to many. (Its publisher, Thomas Nelson, offers several versions of the Bible, including the King James, in giant print.)

The only negative is that increasing the type size means more pages. That can mean a much heavier Bible, or — as with this Bible — using thin paper to keep the weight down. The problem with the latter option is that the heavy print on the opposite side of the page very noticeably shows through, significantly interfer­ing with the contrast between the letters and the paper, thus partially defeating the original purpose of larger print.

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