Books February 2013
February 1, 2013
Reviewed this month:
- Embracing Israel/Palestine: A Strategy to Heal and Transform the Middle East.
By Rabbi Michael Lerner. Reviewed by Max L. Carter.
- Some Thoughts on Becoming Eighty-Five.
By William Z. Shetter. Reviewed by Isaac Rehert.
- Forging the Male Spirit: The Spiritual Lives of American College Men.
By W. Merle Longwood, William C. Scipper, OSB, and Philip Culbertson. Reviewed by Lincoln Alpern.
- Sweet Fruit from the Bitter Tree: 61 Stories of Creative & Compassionate Ways out of Conflict.
By Mark Andreas. Reviewed by Judith Favor.
- Discovering Lectio Divina: Bringing Scripture into Ordinary Life.
By James C. Wilhoit and Evan B. Howard. Reviewed by Susan Jeffers.
- Putting Away Childish Things: A Novel of Modern Faith.
By Marcus J. Borg. Reviewed by James W. Hood.
Embracing Israel/Palestine: A Strategy to Heal and Transform the Middle East
By Rabbi Michael Lerner. Tikkun Books and North Atlantic Books, 2012. 425 pages. $17.95/paperback.
Reviewed by Max L. Carter
A few years ago, after writing an op-ed piece in the local paper criticizing Israel’s Occupation of the Palestinian territories, I received an email from a Jewish friend that nearly melted my computer. I arranged to meet her for lunch to discuss our differences and, over a cordial hour, she shared with me what caused her response: “I am perfectly rational 99% of the time, but in that 1% when I feel the Jewish people and the existence of the State of Israel are threatened, I can get very irrational!”
Rabbi Michael Lerner, co-founder of Tikkun magazine and chair of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, describes my friend’s condition as a symptom of collective Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Centuries of anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, and the perception that there are still “enemies” out to get them, Lerner believes, have contributed to a “societal pathology” that needs to be addressed by careful psychotherapy. Similarly, he believes, Palestinians too are suffering their own PTSD.
In Embracing Israel/Palestine, Lerner takes a unique approach to analyzing the Israeli/Palestinian conflict by not only presenting the history of the conflict from both sides, but by seeing the heart of the conflict—and the only hope for a lasting solution—as the need for “a fundamental transformation of consciousness” through embracing what he calls the “Left Hand of God” (love and generosity) and rejecting the “Right Hand of God” (fear and domination).
This is easier said than done. Lerner describes the deeply-seated memories of pain, suffering, and marginalization that both Jews and Palestinians have, as well as the overwhelming powers of nationalism, self-interest, and idolatry that prevent the realization of truly prophetic and utopian dreams for the future of the Middle East.
In ten thorough chapters, Lerner lays out the historical roots of the trauma experienced by both peoples. He gives an excellent overview of the rise of Zionism and competing nationalisms, details the intrigue leading up to the 1948 war, and discusses the establishment of both the modern state of Israel and the Palestinian refugee problem. Lerner chronicles the fact that both sides are complicit in “never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity” as the conflict drags into the twenty-first century.
The last chapters present Lerner’s vision for a sustainable and just peace agreement, including two-state, one-state, and no-state solutions. Debunking the myth that there is “no peace partner” for Israel, he also describes the creative nonviolent justice movements and strategies in the region, including demonstrations and the BDS movement (boycotts, divestment, and sanctions), which he thinks should only be used for opposing settlement activity. An excellent list of 22 questions (with answers!) typically asked about the conflict and a stirring call for the revitalization of Jewish spirituality close out the book.
Lerner’s book is helpful both in understanding the dueling narratives of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and in gaining insight into a spirituality that honors “that of God” in all people. Lerner sees as paramount the need for tikkun olam (the healing, repair, and transformation of the world). It will surprise many readers to find this highly respected Jewish scholar so critical of Israel and the “Israel Lobby” and so understanding of Palestinian trauma. At the same time, Lerner articulates a strong devotion to the state of Israel and a commitment to Torah and Judaism’s rich legacy.
I’m not sure my “melt-down” friend would enjoy the book, but she would recognize herself in it—and the fact that there is a community of people committed to Judaism and the safety and prosperity of Israel who, at the same time, can be even more critical of current Israeli policy than her non-Jewish friend!
Max L. Carter taught in the Ramallah Friends Schools as his alternative service as a Vietnam War-era Conscientious Objector. He returns annually to the Middle East, leading work/study groups to the Ramallah Friends Schools and Israeli and Palestinian peace communities.
Some Thoughts on Becoming Eighty-Five
By William Z. Shetter. Pendle Hill Pamphlet #418, 2012. $6.50/pamphlet.
Reviewed by Isaac Rehert
For the reader interested in the Quaker way to a spiritual path, this little pamphlet may serve as both menu and road map. As menu, it offers a taste of some of the delights to be found on walking that path. As road map, it gives a glimpse of some of the ways of navigating the chaos and conflicts for the spiritually-minded in these confusing times.
Those of us about the same age as the author, on considering the title, might easily encounter a quick feeling of déjà vu, of “we’ve been over this territory before.” We’re familiar with the decline in our physical abilities, the loneliness that comes of watching loved ones depart, and the depression that often accompanies the awareness of having less to live for in the short time left before our own inevitable demise. Ads on television are full of advice and remedies for these conditions. The pamphlet does not ignore them, but that’s not what it is primarily about. It is about the spiritual life, the inward journey all human beings find themselves on—and specifically about the Quaker way of carrying on that journey.
What is striking here is the personal element. Having chosen reflections on his own experience as his way of dealing with those spiritual concerns, this author does not claim “this is the right way,” so much as “this is the way in my life of many years that I have found to do it.”
The issues he has chosen to discuss are easy to keep track of, since their titles are printed in large type surrounded by much white space every couple of pages (which makes it easy to read). They include “The Rewards of a Long Life,” “What is Grace?,” “The Divine in Our Lives,” “Stillness,” “Listening to Other Individuals,” “Wisdom,” “Death,” “Lightness and Foolishness.”
The author begins the pamphlet with a quotation from Alice in Wonderland poking fun at old people, and ends it with a limerick poking fun at Quakers. He displays his sense of humor in “Lightness and Foolishness,” characteristics of which he approves. At the close of the pamphlet is a list of discussion questions that might be useful for sparking meeting study groups.
Considering the title and age of the audience, the publishers might consider printing this pamphlet in a large print edition.
Isaac Rehert, who is in the age-bracket with the author, is a retired newspaperman who was for many years an attender at Stony Run Meeting in Baltimore, Md., and is more recently a member. He currently teaches a course called “How to Read a Poem” at a lifelong-learning institution and has recently published a collection of his own poems called Renaissance, available from email@example.com.
Forging the Male Spirit: The Spiritual Lives of American College Men
By W. Merle Longwood, William C. Scipper, OSB, and Philip Culbertson. Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2012. 164 pages. $19/paperback, $9.99/eBook.
Reviewed by Lincoln Alpern
Forging the Male Spirit has, as its springing-off point, the synopsis of a series of men’s spirituality groups initiated on several American college campuses in recent years. The authors interviewed 36 students at seven of the participating colleges, asking in-depth questions about the young men’s experiences in the groups and their more general thoughts on masculinity and spirituality. Their findings are published in the book’s fourth and longest chapter, with the preceding three providing important background information on the spirituality groups, and on the wider cultural context for considering masculinity, religion, and spirituality.
As far as masculinity goes, the good news is that most of the young college men featured in the book seem to recognize the harmful nature of traditional or hegemonic masculinity, and conceive their own male identity apart from it. They also seem to recognize that their formulation of masculinity is uniquely their own, not a blueprint for behavior in general. In analyzing their data, the authors “discovered that the research participants had identified many forms of masculinity, or more correctly, many masculinities.” Issues of sexism and patriarchy occasionally arose, and here again, a majority of the interviewees seem to have a fairly feminist-friendly outlook, though perhaps less developed than one might prefer.
For me, one of the most salient points in the book was raised by the interviewee known as Adam, and I’m disappointed it got so little follow-up. Adam asks: “So when you get to the core of it, is there a difference between femininity and masculinity? Aside from some physical features and chromosomes, maybe there’s not so much a difference.” Certainly, the difference is huge under patriarchy, and has real social consequences. But if the differences between men as a group and women as a group are small to the point of insignificance, does that suggest that separating us into distinct categories of masculinity and femininity only makes sense in a patriarchal context, and will cease to be an issue if patriarchy is dismantled?
My interest in other areas of the book varied considerably. Some of the sections were deeply engrossing, while others lost my attention. Towards the end of the fourth chapter, I was beginning to feel like the authors were dwelling overly long on some of their points. Though the authors and their interviewees talk a lot about masculinity and spirituality, they often compartmentalize the two subjects, and I think they could have done a better job of unifying their themes.
Not only that, but the book is in many ways less universal than the title suggests. Several of the issues facing the young men as well as their insights resonated strongly with me, but the framework is utterly alien to my own experience. The interviewees all came from small, private, liberal arts colleges, but the aspects the authors focus on are almost completely outside my own frame of reference. Granted, I had an unorthodox upbringing, as did most of my close friends, but even taking that into account, I think it’s fair to say Forging the Male Spirit is extremely situated in the spiritual lives of a (substantial) subsection of American college men.
There’s a lot for us to glean from this book, but it’s not for everyone. I think the percentage of people who will find something sufficiently valuable in Forging the Male Spirit to justify the investment is probably lower than you might at first think.
Lincoln Alpern is a member of Scarsdale (N.Y.) Meeting, and has studied issues of feminism and masculinity for several years
Sweet Fruit from the Bitter Tree: 61 Stories of Creative & Compassionate Ways out of Conflict
By Mark Andreas. Real People Press, 2011. 302 pages. $12.87/paperback, $9.95/eBook.
Reviewed by Judith Favor
What do you do when conflict arises with loved ones, neighbors or strangers? Especially when you don’t have a choice about ignoring the situation or leaving it? Some conflicts are so difficult that only a story can heal them. These concerns prompted Mark Andreas, an Earlham School of Religion graduate in peace and global studies, to collect stories about folks who learned to tap into inner resources rather than be stopped by fear or helplessness. Some related to threatening persons by matching their tone. Others gained rapport, then actively led the situation in a new direction. Most responded compassionately to someone in turmoil and prevented anyone from being harmed. Two-thirds of the 61 stories represent the male point of view; females and anonymous sources contribute the rest. Some tales, such as Marshall Rosenberg’s “Two Tribes,” are reprinted from other publications.
The index is a big help because stories are printed in random order. If you’re interested in a specific topic such as spontaneity, consult the index. “Fixing the Dog,” “You Have My Wallet?” and “Excuse Me!” are my favorites. To locate examples of reframing meaning, read “A Soft Answer,” “Flex Cop,” and “Dork Police.” Many stories are indexed under topics such as community, healing and values. You’ll find poignant stories of conflict resolution through connection with God, Spirit or “The Whole.” “Guests in the Night” and “Navaho Handshake” are two that remain with me.
How do you address persistent conflict in schools, workplaces and religious groups? Andreas found examples ranging from Allah to War. Friends involved in the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) will recognize transforming power as the active ingredient at work in most situations where folks came up with nonviolent ways to resolve conflict.
This is an invaluable resource for AVP facilitators. Sweet Fruit from the Bitter Tree is also a good book for youth leaders, young Friends and people of all ages working to foster peace. Parents will want a copy for bedtime reading to kids. Some stories can be read in one minute; others take five. All are heartwarming and kindle the imagination.
Judith Favor is a grandmother, convinced Friend and retired AVP facilitator in California prisons. She is active in Claremont (Calif.) Meeting and Pacific (Calif.) Yearly Meeting.
Discovering Lectio Divina: Bringing Scripture into Ordinary Life
By James C. Wilhoit and Evan B. Howard. InterVarsity Press, 2012. 158 pages. $15.00/paperback.
Reviewed by Susan Jeffers
I have long been fascinated with the special role the Bible has played in shaping Friends history and spiritual life. Early Friends experienced Scripture pointing the way to God, turning people to the Light, teaching us how to join in and take our place in the story of God’s loving and powerful relationship with humanity. Even among Friends who seem not to be “Christ centered,” I have felt and sought the Spirit uniting us, often in
ways unseen, with the Bible-based tradition from which we spring. Similarly, I have felt how Scripture unites Friends with the broader Christian community and, indeed, with all humanity and all creation.
This book, although not by or about Friends in particular, describes a way of spiritual engagement through Scripture, a way that I find highly synergistic with Quaker spirituality. The book will be most readily accessible to Friends comfortable with its explicitly Christian orientation. However, anyone interested in going deeper
with God using the Bible will find it a helpful guide to the traditional method of Bible reading and reflection called lectio divina (literally, “divine reading”). Because lectio divina is a tradition with long history and many practitioners, there are various ways of doing it, and all have value.
One bit of advice for readers who have spent more time with books about the Bible than with the Bible itself: stop and read and reflect on at least some of the Bible passages that the authors mention. Slow down and allow the authors to really show you what they mean. Imagine a book about music: how much differently might we experience the content if we actually listen to the music, rather than merely reading about it. The Spirit, through Scripture, can take us to new places. The authors of this book mean to show us a way to open ourselves to such divine leading.
Discovering Lectio Divina is intended for a Christian audience. However, I also recommend it to anyone who wants to learn something of evangelical Christian spirituality from the inside. Let the authors show you how they encounter God in Scripture, and allow yourself to join in the encounter: read, meditate, pray, contemplate,
and act. The methods they describe could potentially be used with any spiritual writing, not just the Bible. But much of the value of this particular book lies in the way that the authors’ specifically Christian experience of God shines through.
Discovering Lectio Divina first introduces the idea of spiritual longing, using biblical images of “thirsting for God” (Psalm 42:2), “hungering and thirsting for righteousness” (Matthew 5:6), and the “living water” of Jesus (John 4:14). In chapter two, the authors share their spiritual vision and experience of “The Divinely Spoken Scripture.” Chapter three, “We Who Live and Breathe,” rounds out the introductory material, discussing
the interaction among Spirit, text, and reader. The authors come across as warm, loving, eager to share a great opportunity and delighted to help the reader experience greater intimacy with God.
Chapters four through eight describe five elements of the lectio divina method, which the authors call reading, meditating, praying, contemplating, and acting. Each chapter offers context, instructions, examples, and encouragement, reflecting not only broad and deep experience of Scripture and spiritual formation, but broad and deep care for the reader. Each section includes insights useful to any seeker, expressed simply and using both personal experiences and biblical texts as illustrations.
I especially enjoyed the authors’ sense that we humans are “all in this together,” particularly in our frustrations and challenges. For example, “Worry is a form of meditation. It is a way of practicing the presence of doubt…. We do not have to say, ‘Let’s set aside some time to worry and obsess over this.’ Worry just happens automatically” (pp. 77-78). One point of the lectio manner of meditating is to help us move beyond our well-practiced habits and into a more Spirit-directed meditation.
Lectio divina is a time-honored method of meditative reading of the Bible, dating back to the early centuries of Christianity. I find it a particularly good fit for Friends, in that it synergizes with our orientation toward personal experience of the divine. This particular introduction to the method impresses me as being unusually experiential, connecting the words of the Bible to the lived spirituality so dear to Friends.
Susan Jeffers is a member of Ann Arbor (Mich.) Meeting and has a Master’s in Biblical studies from Earlham School of Religion. She teaches online Bible courses, including introductory biblical Greek. She loves the Bible and practices lectio divina, among other spiritual disciplines.
Putting Away Childish Things: A Novel of Modern Faith
By Marcus J. Borg. HarperOne, 2010. 338 pages. $14.99/paperback.
Reviewed by James W. Hood
Marcus J. Borg’s first novel traces a key moment in the academic life of small-college religion professor Kate Riley. In Borg’s preface, he offers an apology and candidly admits that this is a “didactic” novel. Borg, who retired in 2007 from a distinguished career at Oregon State University, has built a significant reputation authoring a number of books about contemporary Christianity and the historical Jesus, the most well-known of which is perhaps Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time (1994). In this novel’s preface, Borg recognizes that, absent his already-established fame, the story would not likely have been published. He’s right. As a novel, the book doesn’t work very well. As an introduction to some of the key faith issues in contemporary Christianity, however, the book makes sense. Through a campus drama about an academic negotiating the trials of pre-tenure existence, it sketches the main contours of current questions within Christianity about the historical veracity of faith claims.
The book opens midway through Kate Riley’s fifth year teaching New Testament and Christianity courses at Wells College, a mythical, small, high-caliber liberal arts school in central Wisconsin. Kate’s students admire and like her, but some of her colleagues voice vague concerns that her publications are becoming too Christian, swerving away from serious, scholarly study. When she receives a special invitation to apply for a one-year teaching position at Scudder Divinity School, an Episcopal seminary, department politics heat up and her colleagues’ motives become even more mystifying. The fact that Kate’s undergraduate mentor from 20 years before, a man with whom she had an affair, now teaches at Scudder thickens the stew of personal conflict attendant on the offer.
A considerable amount of the novel takes place in Kate’s classroom, particularly in a course about the effects of the Enlightenment on Christianity and its role in Western culture. We listen in on class discussions and Kate’s clarifying lectures, watching the course themes unfold. It’s here that the book’s didactic nature becomes most obvious: the central character is a didact (in the strictest sense), a teacher, and the central purpose of the novel is to teach us something about how one might be reasonably Christian in a post-Enlightenment, indeed post-modern, questioning age. Kate also engages in a number of conversations with colleagues and students, particularly a senior named Erin Mattson—who has been a faithful member of a campus Christian group called The Way—but finds herself questioning their rigid Biblical literalism. These dialogues serve a Socratic function.
The novel definitely addresses a first-world problem—Kate’s decision-making about the new job possibility—and the book is quite insular in its focus on the academic world. But that focus is also its strength, concentrating as it does on how to locate a contemporary, viable, Christian faith position in between cynical atheism and evangelical blind acceptance. It’s quite a talky novel—in the way Iris Murdoch’s philosophical ones can get blathery—and not to everyone’s taste. It is a book that tells instead of showing, even though much transpires through extended dialogue. (There’s one positive nod to Quakerism: the president of Scudder Divinity School has “a Quaker background” and is described as good at running meetings.)
In short, it’s a book for those interested in learning more about Borg’s ideas regarding relativism and the overemphasis on Biblical factuality in popular, contemporary Christianity. There’s a bit of conflict and plot with which Borg accompanies these ideas, but they’re rather like the tuft of cabbage next to your restaurant eggs and toast: it won’t harm you if you eat it, but it’s really decoration. As Borg admits, this novel’s goal is to instruct, but the concepts it delivers are worthy of study.
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