Books January 2014
December 31, 2013
Seven Thousand Ways to Listen: Staying Close to What Is Sacred
By Mark Nepo. Atria Books, 2012. 288 pages. $26/hardcover; $10.38/eBook.
Reviewed by Judith Favor
Mark Nepo is a master of the twin arts of listening and questioning, which are both central to the spiritual experience of Friends. Good queries are electric: they keep Quaker hearts beating steadily in the same way that electric currents emitted by cells in the human heart keep the rhythm steady. If your heart, too, feels warmed by worshipful reading and reflective writing, you will want this book close at hand as a companion in meditation and dialogue.
I bought Nepo’s book in June 2013 as a traveling companion to the Friends General Conference Gathering. It is not a quick read. By the time I got to Greeley, Colo., traveling from my home in southern California, I was only halfway through, but the teachings and queries are so enriching that I introduced a few of Nepo’s “Journal Questions” to my anchor group at Gathering. Friends responded eagerly and honestly, contributing to a rare level of reflective sharing.
I’d finished the entire book by late July and was savoring Nepo’s wisdom when I got to Pacific Yearly Meeting’s annual session. I introduced a few engaging “Table Questions” to Friends around shared tables at Mount Madonna Center and in a small worship sharing group. These were such nourishing experiences that I brought Nepo’s queries to Prince of Peace Abbey on Labor Day weekend. “Look Well to the Growing Edge” was the theme of Southern California Friends Sixteenth Annual Silent Retreat. We pondered these prompts and queries during quiet meals:
- Breakfast: Remember the last three times you felt a sense of wonder or experienced a moment of awe. What did these situations have in common? How might you become more receptive to more moments of wonder or awe?
- Lunch: Let the memory of a small kindness find you, an endearing moment that helped you know your true self. Reflect upon your range of personal relationships. Which one is most in need of healing balm? What small kindness might you offer to bring things into right relationship?
- Dinner: When your heart aches for the daily suffering of distant neighbors, which peoples and places come most readily to mind? Which lands and leaders are absent from your awareness? Rather than going into problem solving mode, can you imagine a form of being that might serve the global community as well as an act of doing?
- Breakfast: When threats of global warming and environmental degradation get you down, where do you turn? How do you hold the tension between the world we have and the world we want? Who or what helps you design more sustainable ways of eating, traveling, earning, and spending?
Seven Thousand Ways to Listen: Staying Close to What Is Sacred is one book for Friends to keep close and savor. Nepo’s combination of spiritual maturity, poetic writing, and interfaith sensitivity offers beauty and meaning to nourish the Quaker soul. For me, the author’s heart-filled ways of listening and questioning illuminate the systolic and diastolic rhythm of the Quaker way. Balancing the twin arts of deep listening and apt querying is a primary way to keep worship and action pulsing steadily through the bloodstream of the Religious Society of Friends.
Judith Favor is a member of Claremont (Calif.) Meeting.
Breaking New Ground: A Personal History
By Lester Brown. W.W. Norton & Company, 2013. 224 pages. $24.95/hardcover; $11.99/eBook.
Reviewed by Mitchell Santine Gould
Lester Brown, founder of Earth Policy Institute and Worldwatch Institute, has had a hand in actually changing the course of history, often and significantly, for the better. He is a genius as an agricultural analyst, and is a uniquely persuasive voice of reason among international policymakers.
Breaking New Ground is the story of a remarkably bright, competitive, athletic, impassioned man who rose swiftly from a humble 1934 birth in a New Jersey farm family to play a pivotal role in the 1966 decision by the United States to save the Indian subcontinent from a catastrophic famine. That incident, however, was only the beginning of a long career of global leadership on pressing topics such as soil erosion, deforestation, water depletion, population control, and much more.
Breaking New Ground is an invaluable primer on the history of his efforts to forestall “peak everything” (a phrase used to describe the unprecedented growth in population, energy consumption, and food production of the twentieth century and also the title of a 2007 book by ecological journalist Richard Heinberg). As I read, however, I became uncomfortable with the frequent mentions of Brown’s dealings with international banks and other entities that profit from unfair exploitation of the Earth and its poorer people. It’s not just environmentally conscious media mogul Ted Turner with whom Brown has had dealings, but also the investment banks JPMorgan Chase and HSBC, the highly problematic World Bank, and various defense contractors. Only an independent historian will one day be able to provide us with more insight into the kinds of Faustian bargains Brown must have struck in order to have his urgent warnings given credence by organizations whose interests those very warnings challenged.
Brown’s book is of value to concerned citizens in the age of peak everything (not a term he uses). On page 165, he mentions the four planks of his acclaimed Plan B proposal for rescuing civilization from looming catastrophe: “stabilize population; eradicate poverty; cut carbon emission 80 percent by 2020; and restore the economy’s natural support systems, including forests, grasslands, croplands, and fisheries.” This agenda for justice and prosperity—and survival—is obviously what makes his work so relevant to the deepest concerns of Friends today. He adds later, “I have faced two great challenges in my career. One was fashioning Plan B. The other is the ongoing campaign to convince the world to adopt it.” You can download the Plan B book for free on the web, and I sincerely hope Breaking New Ground may encourage more of us to do so.
Mitchell Santine Gould enables financial advisors to collect data for use in emergencies. Curator of LeavesOfGrass.org, he is the leading authority on Walt Whitman’s rise among “sailors, lovers, and Quakers.” Together with the LGBT Religious Archives Network, he documents the historical intersection between Quakers and gay people.
The Edgefielders: Poor Farm Tales of a Great-Grandmother
By Judith Wright Favor. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013. 267 pages. $10/paperback. $2/eBook (eBook is free for 90 days through Amazon.com’s lending library).
Reviewed by Pamela Haines
When Judith Wright Favor learned that her family had put her great-grandmother in a poorhouse in 1934, she was compelled to learn more. When the available facts proved too thin to satisfy, she sat with what little she knew of her great-grandmother’s life, listened deeply, and a story began to emerge. The Edgefielders is that story.
Edgefield was, in fact, the Multnomah County, Ore., poorhouse farm, where indigent people worked the fields and the elderly poor had a roof over their heads. Margaret Mary Wright and her sons were real people. Around them, a story with multiple elements has been woven: evoking of personal details of the Depression from the experience of the have-nots; discovery of how systems of disparity shape hearts, minds, and souls; listening for ways that people of different races and religions create community when economic necessity forces them to live in close quarters; and exploration of the internal, spiritual realm. Here was a context in which the decision of Favor’s family could be understood. Here was an ending for her great-grandmother that she could live with.
The inmates of Edgefield that Favor has brought to life struggle with external circumstances and with each other, yet grace is there to be found. One could argue that the book isn’t realistic; that the conditions call for grimness; that such a disparate collection of people, all of whom have been beaten down so hard, can’t reasonably be expected to have access to that much goodness. But why not imagine the possibility?
The Edgefielders is an unlikely story, one that can’t be neatly pigeonholed. Promotional materials describe it as “a work of historical imagination, personal acceptance, unlikely romance, and unexpected redemption.” I doubt it is for everyone, but I was glad for the window it provided into a time and place in our history that I had never considered before and for Favor’s meditation, infused with grace, on the opportunities we all have to reach for that of God in everyone.
Pamela Haines is a member of Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting.
Feeling Light Within, I Walk: Tales, Adventures, and Reflections of a Quaker Activist
By Peg Morton. Cedar Row Press, 2013. 351 pages. $15/paperback.
Reviewed by William Shetter
By now Peg Morton’s long life as an activist Friend has become so varied that it is more and more challenging to think of a form of activism in which she has not been involved: demonstrations; protests; vigils; fasts; walks; war tax resistance; and political pressure, including occupations and nonviolent civil disobedience. In this book, she sets out to show us something of the route that put her on this path. In her relaxed, informal style she devotes part one, “Personal Memories and Thoughts,” to the “tales and adventures” of her growing-up years. Some readers other than her family and friends will need to muster a little extra patience here as the path tends to get inundated in detail that turns out to be little different from what we all experience in growing up. But patience does pay off, because it is here that she progressively discovers some of the roots of her later activism.
In part two, “My Activist Life and Thoughts,” starting 100 pages in, this generous detail takes on more weight as she recounts her evolving instinct for activism. Morton has been active in a broad spectrum of causes, but her lifetime focus has been on Central America, particularly Guatemala and Nicaragua. In the latter, she participated in the Witness for Peace along with the authors of the photo documentary Nicaragua (reviewed in FJ Nov. 2011). It was during her stay in Guatemala that she learned firsthand how to attempt to deal effectively at the emotional level with overwhelming violence and injustice. For years, a prime activity of Morton’s has been the School of the Americas Watch, accounting for 46 pages, 12 of which record her prison experience. She reminds us that in connection with various forms of activism, she has been arrested nine times.
Along the way, she turns to the subtitle’s promised reflections, and we begin to see how this lifelong activism has been a natural outgrowth of her path, covered by her adopted Quakerism. Her childhood insecurity, her teenage realization that she “had never felt loved by or felt love for another person,” her lack of success in the teaching profession, and later marital struggles and divorce, all led inescapably to the conclusion that she must join her path to that of others: “One thread of my life has been social difficulties, and learning to grow in self-confidence and in social abilities.” Her guiding attitude is summed up in the title of her 1997 Pendle Hill pamphlet Walk with Me (333), which recorded the activities, particularly in Guatemala, of the Witness for Peace teams and Peace Brigades International. “A theme in my life,” she says now 16 years later, “has been of walking, both actual and metaphorical. . . . We are all on a pilgrimage, walking, walking. We are walking together to reclaim our humanity. We must walk together, a Prayer Walk.”
All this walking, in turn, is never undertaken without constant contact with her Quaker understanding of a Light Within. When asked what keeps her going now at age 82, her response is, “I am and have always been called to join with others who are living and engaging in activism for a better world,” and “learning how to respond from my depths to beauty, to another person, to suffering,” gives her certainty that, for her, the right path is engaging in activism with joy and lightness.
William Shetter is a member of Bloomington (Ind.) Meeting. He is a dedicated walker in every sense of the word.
Following Jesus: The Heart of Faith and Practice
By Paul Anderson. Barclay Press, 2013. 226 pages. $17/paperback; $9/eBook.
Reviewed by Ellen Michaud
George Fox University professor Paul Anderson has been thinking, debating, studying, and praying about Jesus’s life and ministry for decades. He writes with the clarity and certainty of a man who has discerned Truth and is led to teach it.
In his new book, Following Jesus, Anderson includes 37 thoughtful essays that reflect New Testament scholarship, experience as a seasoned Friend, and the challenges of Quaker Christianity today.
His writing is a beacon of clarity for Evangelical Friends to follow. But it also serves the wider community of Friends by reminding us of our radical Christian roots, and offering unprogrammed and progressive Quakers an opportunity to look beyond the narrow Falwellian stereotype of Evangelical Christianity that typically stares out from our television screens on the nightly news.
Twenty-six of the Following Jesus essays are new, while earlier versions of eleven others appeared in the Evangelical Friend, which Anderson edited in the early ’90s. Together they address “A Theology of Presence,” “A Motion of Love,” “Answering ‘That of God’ in Everyone,” “Transforming Worship,” “Embracing the Silence,” “On Letting Our Lives Preach,” “The Counter-violent Way of Jesus,” “Faithful Witness and Social Concern,” and myriad other topics: clarifying misunderstood Bible passages; prodding each of us to a life dedicated to and given totally, unreservedly to God; and providing the historical background behind common practices that today hang from every branch of the Quaker tree.
Time and again, Anderson reminds us that early Friends sought to practice what William Penn called “primitive Christianity revived”—a faith whose essence was focused on “life-changing encounters with the Divine.”
Early Friends eagerly sought these encounters, shared them, and, in large measure, were successful in helping others open to them as well. More than 50,000 men and women eventually joined those early Friends, Anderson writes. When significant numbers traveled to Penn’s woods and settled in what eventually became Pennsylvania, the “Quaker awakening” contributed to the rise of the Wesleyan Methodist movement, the Pentecostal movement, the Salvation Army, and the Vineyard Fellowship.
“The Quaker desire to follow Jesus radically and to restore Christianity to its pristine and apostolic character directly influenced all of these movements,” Anderson writes. What’s more, it was also “substantive” in its contribution to the Pentecostal movement of the early twentieth century, giving rise to post-Azusa Street, Spirit-based Christianity around the world, and to the evolution of peace work and social concern, a worldwide moral movement.
That’s a startling thought for those of us who rarely read the footnotes of Quaker history. But it’s one worthy of contemplation. How it happened is a testament to living in the Light of Christ, to the movement of the Spirit among us, and, perhaps, just perhaps, a light upon the path through a post-denominational era and into the wholeness of convergence.
A great people are still to be gathered.
Ellen Michaud is a former book review editor of Friends Journal and past Writer-in-Residence at Earlham School of Religion. She is the author of Blessed: Living a Grateful Life (which was named by USA Book News as the #1 Spiritual Inspiration Book of the Year in 2011) and is an alumna of the School of the Spirit’s program on contemplative living and prayer. She is a member of South Starksboro (Vt.) Meeting.
Making Housing Happen: Faith-Based Affordable Housing Models (Second Edition)
Edited by Jill Suzanne Shook. Cascade Books, 2013. 270 pages. $34/paperback. $9.99/eBook.
Reviewed by Diane Randall
How do people get caught up in the issue of affordable housing? Some do because they are poor and in need of a home that is safe and affordable, some because they see economic and environmental injustice played out in poor neighborhoods, and they are called to address it.
In the second edition of Making Housing Happen: Faith-Based Affordable Housing Models, editor Jill Suzanne Shook addresses reasons why people of faith engage in the long-term commitment to create affordable housing that builds stronger communities. This book will resonate with those of us who have sought to justify zoning laws for housing density that make homes more affordable, those who have lobbied for independent apartments for people who have been chronically homeless, or those who have used any other approach that allows people to have a place to call home. Builders who have volunteered sweat equity on projects for first-time homeowners will also be interested.
In the first chapter, Shook sets the stage with a brief history of housing policy in the United States. Updated from the first edition, the housing statistics now show an even deeper demand for affordable housing: Over half of the renting households in the United States are paying more than 30 percent of their income for housing, and 28 percent of homeowners are underwater (paying more on their mortgages than their homes are worth).
The content of the book is the stories of faith communities from Washington, D.C., to Pasadena, Calif.; from Orland, Maine, to Pasco, Wash., that have created affordable housing for families, elders, people with disabilities, veterans, and formerly homeless people. Twenty writers contribute to the storytelling, with narratives tracing the evolution of various housing models and offering basic how-to advice for co-ops; sweat equity projects; mixed-use, mixed-income developments; co-housing; community land trusts; and Habitat for Humanity.
But the stories are more than basic instructions, as they include the rich context of the soul that longs for equality and justice. Chad Schwitters at Urban Homeworks in Minneapolis, Minn., is inspired by Isaiah 58:
This is the kind of fast day I’m after: to break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, cancel debts. . . . You’ll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew, rebuild the foundation from out of your past. You’ll be known as those who can fix anything, restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate, make the community livable again.
Shane Claiborne, a resident and activist in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pa., writes: “We dreamed ancient visions of the Early Church in which there were ‘no needy persons’ among them because all shared their possessions.”
Shook has researched the field of affordable housing development and has included endnotes and an index for further references. She concludes the book with a chapter devoted to definitions of terms used by “housers,” and with another chapter devoted to getting started, suggesting questions for every faith community to ask itself in discerning way forward in making faith-based housing happen.
Making Housing Happen is a great book for meeting or church libraries, providing a resource for social activism or for understanding the breadth of the field and wealth of information available to address the political, social, and spiritual dimensions of one substantial injustice in our country today: the lack of affordable and safe homes for everyone in neighborhoods where anyone would want to live.
Diane Randall is executive secretary of the Friends Committee on National Legislation (Fcnl.org). Prior to joining FCNL, Diane was executive director of the Partnership for Strong Communities (Pschousing.org), a Connecticut-based nonprofit that advocates for affordable and supportive housing.
Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist
By Bill McKibben. Henry Holt and Company, 2013. 255 pages. $26/hardcover; $12.99/eBook.
Reviewed by Laura Jackson
The first book by professor and environmentalist Bill McKibben, The End of Nature, was published in 1989. “I was young,” he writes 24 years later in Oil and Honey. “I thought that people would read my book and change their lives.” When they didn’t, he went on to write ten more books about the greenhouse effect, acid rain, depletion of the ozone layer, and the need for human beings to make a fundamental shift in their relationships with nature.
Somewhere along the way, it became clear to McKibben that he would need to be the one to change his life, move into activism, and attempt to build a movement that would address the climate change he had written about for so many years. He experienced this realization as “stepping off a small cliff.”
Those of us who have chosen to become activists on behalf of the Earth have also discovered that the choice does not come easily or without cost, and that the learning curve can be steep. In Oil and Honey, McKibben shares his personal journey into what he calls “the unknown and the greater community.” From his first organized action (a walk across Vermont with seven friends in 2009) to his founding of 350.org; from his first arrest for civil disobedience to his 2012 organizing of the largest climate change rally in U.S. history, we follow McKibben as he struggles to maintain some sort of balance in his private, public, and spiritual life. “I willed myself to be someone other than who I had been,” he writes, “and I miss, sometimes desperately, the other me: the one who knew lots about reason and beauty and very little about the way power works.”
During these tumultuous years, McKibben often took refuge in his deep friendship with Vermont neighbor and local beekeeper Kirk Webster. He found—in both Webster’s passionate shepherding of his aviary through this most difficult decade in beekeeping history, and in the bees’ own struggle to survive an increasingly industrialized monoculture—“a very beautiful way of dealing with a malfunctioning modernity.” Webster’s demanding commitment to chemical-free beekeeping, and his discovery that this is most easily accomplished in an environment rich in biodiversity, provided McKibben with both metaphor and clear evidence for his own work—fighting climate change and restoring an Earth where both bees and humans can thrive.
McKibben saw in the complex and “democratic” activity of the aviary an “example of collective intelligence” that allowed him, in 2013, to perceive the 50,000 climate activists gathered in Washington, D.C., for the largest climate rally in history, as a “great planetary hive.” Each individual arrived on the National Mall, not carrying honey, but bringing to the common cause the power and knowledge processed from their individual passion and local activism.
Keeping the oil reserves in the Earth is directly related to keeping Webster’s honey flowing sweet and abundant. Although he and Webster have their different ways of working in the world (one with the “fixed gravity” of the local beekeeper and the other with the “constant motion” of a global organizer), their efforts are intrinsically enmeshed and both necessary in the fight for the survival of life on planet Earth.
Oil and Honey is the intimate and compelling story of one contemporary activist on a journey from college professor and writer to global leader of a grassroots movement committed to solving the climate crisis. Reading it, I am reminded that to love passionately what we know we may lose is a profound expression of a mature spirituality.
McKibben, this self-described “reluctant” activist, was the 2013 recipient of the Indira Gandhi Prize, which is awarded annually by India to individuals or organizations in recognition of creative efforts toward promoting international peace, development, and a new international economic order.
Laura Jackson is a member of Merion (Pa.) Meeting and of the Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT). She was arrested outside the White House as part of McKibben’s 350.org action in 2011.
Queries as Prayers
By Ron B. Rembert. Pendle Hill Pamphlets (number 423), 2013. 35 pages. $6.50/pamphlet.
Reviewed by Brian Drayton
The queries, a cherished Quaker tool for spiritual formation, have gone through many changes over the centuries. Originally addressed to meetings (the “you” as opposed to “thee”), in the last century they have become less and less the focus of a community exercise, and more a tool for individual self-examination and reflection. Occasionally, we get guidance for their use (for example, Uncomfortable Queries by Harold Loukes), but we can use more stories about how individual Friends have found them helpful, or incorporated them into a sustaining spiritual discipline.
In this pamphlet, Ron Rembert gives us just such a narrative. We encounter him in the midst of an ecumenical workshop in which some writing on interior practice was expected. By his own account, Rembert wants “to revive my answering of queries and to intensify my practice of prayer.” The rest of the pamphlet recounts some of his experiments with meditations on queries as seeds for written prayer.
He is frank about his discomfort with writing prayers in the first place, and takes the time to explore the value and effects that such an exercise can offer. Moving from the query into a place of self-exploration, Rembert finds that he can move to prayer as an epitome of his reflections, and an explicit placing of himself in God’s presence, in the new consciousness that his meditations have brought.
A payoff, sometimes, is that the fruits of reflection distilled in these prayers may be suitable for sharing with others for spiritual conversation and encouragement. Rembert finds, too, that his vocal messages in meeting have taken on a refreshed life and usefulness, primed by a hesitant first offering of one of his written experiments-in-prayer.
I suspect that there are many Friends who, whether they adopt Rembert’s practice as he describes it, will find themselves encouraged to return to the queries, or to give fresh attention to their prayer practice, or both. While on the one hand we rightly fear too glib a sharing about spiritual matters, on the other hand we are thirsty to hear how others find their way forward, and learn what we can from them—even if it is that the school of Christ is always open.
Brian Drayton is a member of Weare (N.H.) Meeting.
A Theological Perspective on Quaker Lobbying
By Margery Post Abbott. Friends Committee on National Legislation, 2012. 35 pages. Pamphlet available for free download at www.fdsj.nl/FCNLAbbott.
Reviewed by Anthony Manousos
One of the surprising (and delightful) discoveries I made when I took part for the first time in Friends Committee on National Legislation’s lobby day in Washington, D.C., was how theologically diverse the 300 or so Quakers in attendance were. Pastoral Friends from Friends United Meeting as well as Evangelical and unprogrammed Friends took part. This is in keeping with FCNL’s mission “to bring the concerns, experiences, and testimonies of Friends to bear on policy decisions in the nation’s Capitol.” FCNL makes it clear that it doesn’t speak for all Friends (given the religious and political diversity among Friends, that would be impossible!) but seeks to make sure that “people of many religious backgrounds participate in this work.”
This goal is encouraging, since we need all the help we can muster to influence our elected officials to focus on the needs of the people and of our endangered planet, rather than on the war machine and the big corporations.
One sign of FCNL’s theological diversity and openness is its publication of Margery Abbott’s pamphlet, A Theological Perspective on Quaker Lobbying. Abbott is eminently qualified to write this pamphlet, having served as clerk of North Pacific Yearly Meeting and of FCNL’s General Commitee. She has also been a bridge-builder between Evangelical and unprogrammed Friends ever since writing her pamphlet Transcending Differences. Her 2010 book, To Be Broken and Tender: A Quaker Theology for Today, is about her struggles to come to terms with Christianity as a liberal, unprogrammed Friend. She is currently at work on a book about prophetic ministry, a topic closely related to lobbying. (Israel’s prophets could be seen as social critics and lobbyists on behalf of the poor and marginalized.)
A Theological Perspective provides a lucid and compelling case for Quaker lobbying based on not only the Bible, but also Quaker history. From the very beginning, Quakers were engaged in trying to influence Parliament and other political leaders to allow and protect religious freedom. Quaker women as well as men lobbied the government with boldness and authority stemming from their religious convictions and experiences. As Abbott points out, Margaret Fell (the co-founder of Quakerism, along with her husband George Fox) delivered a message into the king’s hand titled “A Declaration and An Information from Us, the People Called Quakers, to the present Governors, the King, and Both Houses of Parliament, and All Whom It May Concern.” Fell had no qualms or hesitation about speaking prophetically on behalf of Friends to those in power.
Abbott deals with many difficult issues, such as “the tension between the call to be prophetic and the desire to be effective” and the differences among Friends as we face the challenge to speak “with clarity and unity on federal legislation.”
This pamphlet also helps dispel the idea that the “political” and “spiritual” are mutually exclusive. As Abbott makes clear, this distinction would have made little sense to early Friends since the political and the religious were inseparable in the seventeenth century. The goal of early Friends (like that of early Christians) was not only inward transformation, but also the advent of a new kind of society, based on love and justice for all. Unlike lobbying groups that rely on fear to arouse their constituents (and raise funds), FCNL “relies on the power of God’s love in its witness against the forces of excessive wealth, nationalism, and fear.” That means learning how to see and appeal to that of God in our elected officials, which is not always easy given how our national political life has become so polarized.
Because this pamphlet is succinct and easily readable in a single sitting, it is ideal for adult study. A study guide with questions for reflection is provided along with suggested readings. I recommend this work for Friends who want to know our history and to have a biblical understanding of our lobbying work.
Anthony Manousos, a member of Santa Monica (Calif.) Meeting, is a peace activist, teacher, author, and editor.
Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth
By Reza Aslan. Random House, 2013. 336 pages. $27/hardcover; $6.99/eBook.
Review by Max L. Carter
Wilmer Cooper, founding dean of the Earlham School of Religion, has noted that George Fox’s Christian theology could stand complete without any reference to the historical Jesus, so dependent it is on the “Light of Jesus Christ Within.” This puts Fox in good company with the Apostle Paul, according to Reza Aslan, author of the controversial bestseller Zealot.
That might make many Friends uncomfortable, especially those whose Quaker Christianity is dependent on the ethical teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, but not as uncomfortable as many have been with other assertions Aslan makes:
- There is very little documentation of the historical Jesus; the Gospel accounts are theology and not “history” as we know it.
- Mary was no perpetual virgin, and Jesus had plenty of brothers and sisters.
- The birth of Jesus in Bethlehem is pure fiction.
- It is inconceivable that Jesus or his first disciples would consider him to be God incarnate.
The list goes on and on in a page-turner of a book that, while breaking no new ground in scholarship about Jesus, does add important detail to the political, social, and religious climate out of which Jesus, the person and theological concept, emerged. Especially riveting is the description of Roman occupation of Palestine, Rome’s policies, and the Jewish resistance that was forged in that bloody crucible. It will make Quakers squirm with its blood and gore.
Aslan’s book is divided into three sections. The first is the detailed account of the horror of occupation and the bodies (usually headless or crucified) that turned up over and over again as Rome asserted its authority. A second section delves into what we can ascertain from sparse historical accounts and the tools of scriptural analysis about Jesus’s self-understanding. The last section examines the “post-Easter Jesus” and the competing Christian movements that sought to define his legacy, with Paul eventually winning out over James, even though the former never met the earthly Jesus, and the latter, categorically stated by Aslan as fact, was Jesus’s blood brother.
Each part is well-documented with standard scholarly references. In fact, a substantial portion of the book consists of notes and bibliography. Missing in the bibliography, though, are works by evangelicals and by those from the Anabaptist or Radical Reformation interpretation of Christianity. No works by Walter Wink, John Howard Yoder, or Ched Meyers appear, although one book by the Quaker scholar of Luke-Acts, Henry Cadbury, appears.
Aslan, who was a summer intern with the Friends Committee on National Legislation years before he became a number one New York Times bestseller (and fodder for Fox News) does differentiate Jesus from other insurrectionists of his era. He lays out a compelling narrative of a man who had every reason to promote a violent interpretation of “The Kingdom of God,” but chose a different path. In his conclusion, Aslan comes down in favor of the “revolutionary zealot” who defied the Temple priesthood and Roman authorities, and laments Paul’s “victory” in creating a completely different Jesus.
This provides an interesting paradox for Friends of a certain sort: many Quakers who read this review will tend to, as Cooper noted about Fox, have a Pauline, ahistorical conception of Christ, while in their lives promote the historical teachings of Jesus which Paul completely ignores. That’s all the more reason for Friends to read this book.
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