Books August 2014
August 1, 2014
Chuck Fager’s Angel of Progress is reviewed on this page.
But Who Do You Say That I Am? Quakers and Christ Today
By Douglas Gwyn. Pendle Hill Pamphlets (number 426), 2014. 36 pages. $7/pamphlet.
Reviewed by Paul Buckley
Members of the Religious Society of Friends have a variety of relationships with Jesus Christ. Just among those in liberal unprogrammed meetings—the target audience for this pamphlet—there is great diversity, but unlike other forms of diversity, we don’t talk about it. Or rather, Friends talk with those who share their views but avoid discussion with others. It’s too dangerous. It might threaten personal relationships or reveal fissures within the meeting that we would prefer to overlook.
Doug Gwyn has written a short, easily read pamphlet that should be used by Friends in every liberal unprogrammed meeting to start that conversation.
Gwyn was born into “a comfortable, but not very challenging pastoral Friends meeting in the American Midwest.” He grew up with a semi-detached relationship to Jesus. Even after feeling an unexpected but convincing (early Friends would have said “convicting”) call to be a pastor, he “was not yet a Christian in any serious sense.” His day of visitation occurred during an unprogrammed meeting for worship. Sitting on a bench at the Fifteenth Street Meeting in New York City, he “embraced the risen Christ.” In the 40 years since, he has moved between the branches of Friends, serving ably as a minister, scholar, and teacher.
In only a few pages, Gwyn sketches beliefs about the Christ found among early Friends and those of Friends today. Rather than a simplistic Christocentric/Universalist dichotomy, he describes five broad and overlapping categories of Quakers: Foundationalist, Conservative, Ecumenical and Interfaith, Universalist, and Nontheist. The descriptions are brief but sensitive, and his fondness for some in each camp is obvious.
To each of these circles of Friends, he poses a number of queries challenging us to answer the question Jesus put to his disciples: “But who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29)
Gwyn notes that many answer the question asked two verses earlier: “Who do people say I am?” In other words, how do others describe Jesus? We answer this question by describing what we believe those in other churches—often a church we have forsaken—say about Jesus. In essence, Gwyn asks, “What canst thou say?”
These queries provide an opportunity for individuals to break open implicit and unspoken assumptions, but even more valuable are the ten questions at the end of the pamphlet. These cut across the subsets of Friends and open the possibility for us to listen to, and maybe even understand, each other.
The front cover of this pamphlet is unfortunate. The picture of Jesus may push away some of those who would most benefit from reading it. Don’t let it fool you. This is a pamphlet all members and attenders in every Friends meeting should be reading, and reading together.
Paul Buckley attends Community Meeting in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is well known among Friends across the Quaker spectrum for presentations, workshops, and retreats, as well as his many articles and books on Quaker history, faith, and practice. His most recent book is The Essential Elias Hicks.
Gathering the Silence
By Eileen R. Kinch. Finishing Line Press, 2013. 25 pages. $12/paperback.
Home Ground: Poems
By Jeanne Lohmann. Fithian Press, 2013. 100 pages. $14/paperback.
Two titles reviewed by Michael S. Glaser
One of the genuine pleasures of doing book reviews—and indeed the lagniappe of such engagement in the literary world—is discovering books I might well never have come across if they hadn’t been sent by my editor for consideration.
Gathering the Silence by Eileen R. Kinch and Home Ground by Jeanne Lohmann are two such works. They have enriched my life and strengthened my spirit, and I can—and do—recommend each one wholeheartedly. They are valuable works to read, and wonderful gifts to give to yourself or others you love.
Kinch’s Gathering the Silence embraces the details of her life with penetrating curiosity and genuine sensitivity. She grew up as a Quaker, living in Amish country, and singing with a Baptist choir. The theological complexities such a childhood presents one with—the profound questions about the life of the Spirit—serve as the fertile soil from which these poems rise, seek the light, and bloom, always respectful of how it is that “silence says the rest.” Kinch’s poems are infused with a Quaker sensibility and leave one with a feeling similar to the feeling at the end of an excellent Quaker meeting for worship in which everyone has experienced the “moving breath” of “silence in the forest of words.”
It is a strange thing, to dwell at the edge
of the worlds.
Yet I am a witness to the music—
a fierce, beautiful song.
The scope of spiritual, personal, and emotional courage these poems embrace is stunning, from the haunting underbelly of fear that we have become “headless angels, singing in the dark” to the hairbrush that is a history book of memories rising, like strands of fallen hair to the surface of the bristles, to the communion of blood that connects us, all flowing into the rivers that “cradle our lives and map out our destinations.”
This collection of poems is marked by precisely crafted language that offers testimony about the “dark cool silence, the sour smell / of ripening.” It also bears witness to
. . . how life breaks
the seal and comes bursting out one morning,
green and pungent, fresh with salty
tang in its lips.
Jeanne Lohmann’s Home Ground is another amazing collection of poems. At 90, her mind and her poems remain sharp with questions that continue the search for “wisdom unreachable” while never forgetting to embrace life with gratitude and awe. As her poetry has always done, so too do these poems seek
not to disparage preachers and their
libraries of most important books,
but to wrap the grand themes
in some human garment,
a sweater from the hall closet,
a raincoat, perhaps,
A many faceted collection, a number of these poems seem almost an extended eulogy, an honest and compassionate consideration of the meaning of life after loss, of how to continue on even as she looks back over eight decades of living, not with longing for what has been lost, but rather seeking further understanding and wonder as she moves toward the even greater mystery and prepares to learn the “songs she doesn’t know.”
Lohmann’s writing is gentle and wise. She looks at loss and aging, at death and dying with a remarkable sense of grace and integrity. Her poems exhibit an admirable ability to not simply accept, but also to embrace what is.
It is time to accept my life
for what it was and is, claim
every random happiness
beyond the heresy of numbers.
If there’s another world, it could be
this one, and it’s good to be reminded,
to lift no shield against a season’s lack
and close no window-shade
on night sky and the stars.
They help my heart to lift and heal,
oblivious, indifferent as they are.
These are poems that engage the reader in “praising a difficult world.” They are poems that hold a “chalice to the light,” and they, like Kinch’s poems, point us toward “the wordless beauty of the world.”
My world is brighter for knowing both of these works.
Michael S. Glaser is a professor emeritus at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. He served as poet laureate of Maryland in 2004–2009. He is most closely associated with the Patuxent Meeting in Calvert County, Md.
From Encounter to Ministry: The Life and Faith of Latin American Friends
Edited by Nancy Thomas. Wider Quaker Fellowship (Friends World Committee for Consultation Section of the Americas), 2014. 20 pages. Free download at voicesoffriends.org.
Reviewed by William Shetter
Some Friends may find in the title—especially the subtitle—the promise of an ambitiously searching survey of a richly complex subject. Quite the contrary: we are treated in this slim booklet to the intimate personal stories of just five Friends. It is heartening to witness in our times the reclaiming of the treasures inherent in storytelling; we are enriched by each other’s stories (hence the title’s “ministry”), and the spiritual nourishment from telling our own story is being universally recognized. These five Latin American Friends in their brief but forcefully narrated stories tell us how they had to go through a “dark valley” as a test before they could emerge into the light.
In “As You Will, Lord,” Yrma Hilarión Escobar (Bolivia) tells the story of how her mother received a diagnosis of leukemia as an opportunity to sense more and more the presence of the Holy Spirit. Yrma felt blessed to observe her mother progressively grow from appeals for healing to acceptance, leading to her dying in peace.
“A Lesson in Hospitality” by Manuela Calisaya Morales de Alanguía (Peru) is about responding to the call to take into her family a gravely ill woman, learning the “lesson” of overcoming her strong reluctance to receive any visitors in her home. Her dying guest has such an inner strength that Manuela finds herself saying, “When I looked at her face, I saw a beautiful, light-filled woman.” It is only years after her guest has died that she realizes the divine blessings that are brought by “all the people who come into our home.”
Mario Colque Mamani (Bolivia) tells us in “Dreams of Hope” his story of how anguished a parent can feel when a daughter is born with a serious physical malformation. When a trip to neighboring Argentina to find medical experts encountered only delays, it was back in Bolivia that the increasingly desperate family found doctors willing and able to perform the necessary series of operations. This severe test brought the family together and solidified their faith.
In “Moonlight,” Ricardo Jovel Saravia (El Salvador) narrates how following a highway accident he anxiously tried to get his severely injured friend medical help. When the friend died soon after, Ricardo was left for years with guilt feelings, nightmares, and anguished searching for the sense in what had happened, until he felt within himself a redeeming and transforming power.
“Walking Barefoot” by Hilarión Quispe Yana (Bolivia) is a confrontation with physical circumstances far more primitive than most of us can readily imagine. On a long trip to a church where he was to teach and preach, Hilarión is plunged into a nightmarish world of unwilling and unreliable drivers, a dark night walk in an unfamiliar country, loss of his shoes in the mud, plain exhaustion, and near loss of resolve. But this test served to remind him how Jesus walked the earth undeterred, and Hilarión ends with “let’s walk barefoot” and “let’s not forget to walk, in spite of mishaps along the road.”
The articles in this booklet are part of a collection of personal stories that emerged from a series of writers’ workshops facilitated and led by editor Nancy Thomas and her husband, Hal, of Northwest Yearly Meeting (NWYM). All of the stories were first compiled in Spanish into a book titled De encuentro a ministerio: la vida y fe de los Amigos latinoamericanos, published by FWCC Section of the Americas and NWYM in 2012. The Wider Quaker Fellowship then selected the five stories we read here for a booklet published first in Spanish and then in English translation. Most readers of this modest collection will wish there were more examples of how severe trials can strengthen the inward life, and of the therapeutic value of the telling of one’s own story. Fortunately, Friends can find all these essays plus more, including the original Spanish versions, online at voicesoffriends.org; click on “Quaker Thought Today.”
William Shetter is a member of Bloomington (Ind.) Meeting. He has visited Friends in Mexico and Cuba, and helped welcome many Latin American Friends from as far south as Bolivia.
Living in the Shadow of the Cross: Understanding and Resisting the Power and Privilege of Christian Hegemony
By Paul Kivel. New Society Publishers, 2013. 304 pages. $18.95/paperback; $9.99/eBook.
Reviewed by Harvey Gillman
The title and the rather heavy subtitle speak for themselves: resistance to a colonizing religious ideology in the name of justice, peace, and greater inclusivity. When I began this book, I was quite excited by its theses. Then I was irritated and had to struggle with the broad sweep of its argument and polemical tone. I even began to wonder whether I, a Brit and hence slightly marginal to the argument concerning U.S. Christianity, was the right person to review it.
For Paul Kivel, hegemonic or mainstream Christianity, as the ideology of ruling elites (irrespective of the teachings of Jesus), bears within itself the seeds of dominance, oppression, and desire to suppress the Other, as these elites strive to maintain their social status. At times, Kivel distinguishes between Christianity (religion) and Christendom (historical power), but in his polemic he often blurs the terms. He admits he is writing about U.S. society in particular but tends to universalize his conclusions. Patriarchy, exclusivity, homophobia, and scorn of the Other are not distinctive characteristics of Christianity (he grudgingly admits this in places), but sometimes you would imagine that it was the source of all the world’s problems. He would claim, however, that until now the richest and most powerful nations have been Christian, so they have been the ones most able to impose their value systems on the whole planet.
There is reference to alternative forms of Christianity, but these are downplayed. There is mention of Christians in social reform and the abolition of slavery but, surprisingly for me, no reference to Friends. As a well-read activist, Kivel has his heart in the right place in his deconstruction and demystification of Christianity’s alliance with power, but statements such as the fact that “homosexuality was accepted” in the early church (where?) and that women had leadership positions (true in a few places, but for how long?) left me speechless. In this he is trying to make a distinction between the early church as a model for social integration and later social and theological Christianity as a colonial enterprise. (Does this remind you of the Quaker desire to return to primitive Christianity?) On the other hand, his analysis of how we use language and the unconscious assumptions we make when speaking of time, salvation, destiny, mission, and so on, which are all part of Christian discourse, is eye-opening and very revealing, challenging in the best sense.
That I struggled with the book, that I questioned details does not diminish the fact that I was glad to have read it. It made me more aware of my own religious assumptions and their consequences in my use of language and consideration of other forms of religious life. For me, religions are forms of language with their prized metaphors, rituals, stories, and ecclesiastical structures. They are ways of encountering truth, but language is not truth in itself, and I have no right to claim that my language is inherently superior to that of others. Ways of describing the world in any language or in the name of any god, ways that diminish the human, need indeed to be resisted. Those ways of being and speaking which encourage believers to seek the divine in the Other (and in the self) need to be affirmed. In this, I agree entirely with Kivel, though he might not use the word “divine” in his own language, and we do not need to use the same vocabulary.
Born into a Jewish family, Harvey Gillman has been a seeker for most of his life. As outreach secretary for British Quakers, he wrote A Light That Is Shining. Other works include A Minority of One and Consider the Blackbird. He has led workshops and has lectured in many places in the Quaker world. He is a member of Brighton Meeting in England.
The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America
By Thomas King. Doubleday Canada, 2012. 287 pages. $24.95/hardcover; $18.95/paperback; $12.99/eBook.
Reviewed by Phila Hoopes
There’s an old saying: History is written by the winners. The implication is that nobody wants to listen to the losers, whether or not they have anything of worth to say.
But what if the history from the losers’ perspective points up the core dysfunctions in the winners’ social structure—their unspoken but ferociously defended assumptions, their heads-we-win/tails-you-lose bigotry, and the entitlement underlying their dealings with other peoples?
Well, then you have . . . The Inconvenient Indian.
This is a hard book to read, more so if you’re starting with prior knowledge of recent history of relations between the United States and Canada and their respective indigenous peoples. Grassroots movements such as the American Indian Movement and, more recently, Idle No More have been the direct outgrowth of the four centuries of conflicts; treaties; betrayals; and exploitative, punitive, surreal, and outright genocidal policies that Thomas King describes in these pages.
King goes to great lengths to explain at the outset that this book is his personal, darkly humorous take on that history. As a professor of English and Native literature at the University of Guelph in Ontario, he candidly admits that he prefers writing fiction (like “buttering warm toast”) to writing history (“like herding porcupines with your elbows”). He also admits up front that “for whatever I’ve included in this book, I’ve left a great deal more out.” For example, he touches only briefly on the fate of the Metis and Inuit, doesn’t mention Leonard Peltier at all, omits the kidnapped and murdered indigenous women of British Columbia, and does not address Idle No More.
Nevertheless, he argues effectively that “while we have dispensed with guns and bugles, and while North America’s sense of its own superiority is better hidden, its disdain muted, twenty-first-century attitudes toward Native people are remarkably similar to those of previous centuries.”
The Inconvenient Indian spans the centuries back to 1622 and the Powhatan Confederacy’s conflict with Virginian colonists. King then traces the efforts of the evolving nations of North America to deal with the original peoples of the land by various means.
Canada and the United States are forced to deal with the Indians “in all sorts of social and historical configurations,” King says. “North American popular culture is littered with savage, noble, and dying Indians, while in real life we have Dead Indians [‘dignified, noble, silent, suitably garbed . . . a romantic reminder of a heroic but fictional past’], Live Indians [‘invisible, unruly, disappointing . . . and breathing . . . simply an unpleasant, contemporary surprise’], and Legal Indians [registered, enrolled, and recognized with a legal status that both Canadian and U.S. governments have been trying to nullify for years].”
Assuming from the outset that these inconvenient natives would inevitably die out, the colonists argued variously that any means of assisting the process was acceptable: from outright killing to starvation; from forced removal from their land to illegal treaty-making with drunk individual Indians; from kidnapping and assimilation of Native children to rescinding recognition of tribes’ existence.
It’s a horrifying, chaotic, and at times outright bizarre history on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border, as the First Peoples continued to stand in the way of not only settlement but also plans for ecocidal resource extraction. The one bright spot comes at the end, as King recounts three modern cases in which Native-White treaty interactions ended positively, without theft or exploitation . . . so far.
Is there hope for a fair and just rapprochement between Native and non-Native cultures on this continent? Disdaining easy, romantic platitudes, King equivocates. What is certain, he says, is that the special, mystical Native relationship to the natural world is equally available to other cultures, should they so choose. In the meantime, let both Native and non-Native cultures live life on their own terms, by their own traditions, values, and lights.
Phila Hoopes is a freelance copywriter, poet, and blogger (soulpathsthejourney.org), a student of creation spirituality and permaculture, with a passion for tracking deep connections in the mystical experience of the Divine across faith traditions. She lives in Maryland and is working on her first book. She is a member of Homewood Meeting in Baltimore, Md.
The Sleeping Dictionary
By Sujata Massey. Gallery Books, 2013. 481 pages. $16/paperback or eBook.
Reviewed by James W. Hood
“You ask for my name, the real one, and I cannot tell.” So begins Sujata Massey’s intriguing coming-of-age novel, narrated by a woman variously called Pom, Didi, Sarah, Pam/Pamela, and Kamala as her life unfolds in India between the crucial years of 1930 and 1947, the end of the British Raj. This opening, with its direct address, puts the reader on notice to pay close attention to the way names and, more generally, language produce and manage power relations between human beings. The novel fulfills the promise here implied by laying out across its canvas multiple opportunities to reflect upon the role of words in suppression and liberation, at both the personal and the national political level.
The novel is not cerebral, though; it has plenty of tale to tell. We learn first that Pom/Didi has been orphaned at age ten when a tidal wave sweeps over her Bengali village and obliterates her entire family. She manages to survive by clinging in a tree until the wave passes, her tenacity clearly established through this outward and visible sign of a personal and sustaining inward power. In the wake of the storm’s devastation, she contracts cholera, is found near death, is hospitalized, and winds up working as a servant at a British boarding school for girls called Lockwood. There her name is changed to Sarah by the headmistress, and she learns to speak and write upper-class English, essentially by osmosis while listening in a classroom. She befriends Bidushi, the high-caste daughter of the landowner for whom her father had labored in the rice fields. Those familiar with Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre will notice some striking nods to that classic girl-to-woman bildungsroman, but the parallels are deft enough to enrich, not encumber, The Sleeping Dictionary’s depiction of female empowerment in the context of colonial rule.
Wrongly accused of stealing a piece of Bidushi’s jewelry, Sarah flees Lockwood intending to go to Calcutta, but a novice’s travel mistake lands her in Kharagpur where an apparently kind, young woman lures her into what becomes a short career as a prostitute in a high-class brothel known as Rose Villa, a place where Indian and Anglo-Indian girls serve up pleasures to British customers as directed by a madam known as Mummy. It’s a classic case of orphan-finds-the-wrong-foster-home, and Mummy, who keeps her operation going through judicious service to the chief of police, exploits to the fullest Pamela’s (her name again changed by someone else) inexperience, youth, skin color, and beauty. (In a bitterly ironic bit of foreshadowing, Pom’s impoverished real mother tells her early on, “Your face is our jewel.”) Despite her naiveté and enough trauma to scar anyone into abject submission, Pamela miraculously gathers the courage to flee Rose Villa—a particular alteration in her circumstances providing the impetus—and finally makes it to Calcutta.
A combination of fate, her expert language skills, and sheer pluck lead to a job working as a private librarian and housekeeper for a British civil servant engaged in the transition to Indian independence. Simon Lewes treats Kamala (the name she herself adopts in Calcutta) well, and they share a love of books and interest in Indian politics. The Calcutta section of the novel—its longest—details the development of their interactions at Simon’s home as they each work separately in the political sphere, he for the British and she secretly with Indians. Needless to say, complications and entanglements arise.
Setting the very personal story of Kamala’s coming into her own against the backdrop of the conclusion of direct British colonial rule, Massey fashions a complex novel, one which provides both a page-turning plot and opportunities to reflect upon the links between individual and corporate independence. Its chapters’ epigraphs, excerpted from the writings of Rabindranath Tagore and newspaper accounts contemporary with the novel’s time period, together with allusions to various literary texts give the reader multiple opportunities to consider matters beyond the mere story of a village girl maturing into a sophisticated woman. Importantly, the novel reminds us how efficiently social and economic structures perpetuate human exploitation, but at the same time it demonstrates how courageous, resisting individuals and nations reinvent power relations.
Although the book is clearly fiction, historical figures appear in its pages. Gandhi is there but only in passing mention, as is Nehru. The novel spends somewhat more time talking about Subhas Chandra Bose, the two-time president of the Congress party and commander of the Azad Hind Fauj government and the Indian National Army, with whom Kamala’s compatriots interact.
The Sleeping Dictionary (the book reveals the meaning of its title, so I’ll leave it unexplained here) is Massey’s first historical novel. A Quaker who lives in Baltimore, she has been a newspaper journalist and written a series of mystery novels featuring Rei Shimura, a Japanese detective. This new book is well researched, eminently readable, and thought-provoking, and readers will find plenty of interest in its pages.
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