Womanspirit: Reclaiming the Deep Feminine in Our Human Spirituality
By Susan Muto
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
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
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
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
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
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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