Books September 2013
Kindred Spirits: A Collection
By Carrie Newcomer. Rounder Records, 2012. 19 tracks. $12.99/CD; $9.99/MP3 album.
Reviewed by Patricia Morrison
“The Speed of Soul” is the one new song in this collection, and, in characteristic Newcomer fashion, she begins with the case of someone often forgotten, perhaps a runaway or a woman pushed to the margins by poverty or domestic violence. Then, in the next verse, we are in Newcomer’s own kitchen, relating to her desire to “do just one thing at a time” as a change from our multi-tasking lives. Next, on to drone warfare. If that seems like a huge span to cover in a single song, it is. But Newcomer ties it together, showing that we are not so different, even from those we may demonize. In this case, we are all suffering from the same modern illness of traveling faster than our souls. Unless we stop and wait for them and gather up the rest of our fellow soul-outrunning people to slow down and remember our humanity, we will be left somehow empty.
The rest of the songs are from albums spanning 21 years of Newcomer’s career. They represent not simply a most popular list, but also a carefully chosen selection of songs that highlight her ability to deftly mix the “holy ordinary”—as both she and Quaker author Brent Bill call it—with stories of people caught up in some of the biggest social justice issues of our day. Love, loss, suffering, hope, and injustice—all are seen through the lens of a quiet spirituality that permeates all parts of life. In the classic, “Gathering of Spirits,” this quiet spirituality comforts. In “If Not Now,” it challenges. In “Breathe In, Breathe Out,” (from Everything Is Everywhere, her 2011 collaboration with the Ali Khan family, reviewed in FJ March 2012), it instructs. There are more familiar favorites here as well.
This collection speaks powerfully to Newcomer’s belief in the power of words and music, the importance of action, and also her understanding that most people are doing “just about the best they can,” as I’ve heard her say more than once. There is a kind of gentle ferocity that recognizes both the beauty and the pain, while calling us again and again to our better selves. Perhaps the key to the collection lies in her dedication to “my dad James Newcomer, who taught me that the spiritual journey is a daily adventure, and that, if I pay close attention, wonder is close at hand.”
Long involved with Intermountain Yearly Meeting, Patricia Morrison now attends South Mountain (Ore.) Meeting. She is a touring singer/songwriter who works with overwhelmed creatives, helping them share their gifts with the world while sustaining their work with income and recognition. Learn more at www.innerfireouterlight.com and www.patriciamorrison.net.
On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned about Serving the Common Good
By Jim Wallis. Brazos Press, 2013. 320 pages. $21.99/hardcover; $9.46/eBook.
Reviewed by Anthony Manousos
This book is like a breath of fresh air emerging out of the toxic atmosphere of Washington, D.C. Jim Wallis, an Evangelical Christian with a passion for social justice, peace, and Little League baseball, helped found Sojourners Community, a group of Christians who intentionally moved to a low-income area of D.C. in the early 1970s to be in solidarity with the poor. Over the years, his work has gained national and international stature. A “best-selling author, public theologian, national preacher, social activist, and international commentator,” Wallis publishes Sojourners magazine (to which I subscribe) and has published ten books on religion and politics from a progressive Evangelical perspective.
Wallis is also a friend of Friends, who sometimes works with Friends Committee on National Legislation, and has a lot in common with Liberal as well as Evangelical Quakers. A voice of sanity and good will, Wallis challenges our leaders to put aside their petty differences and partisan bickering, and work for the common good, what the founders of our country called “the general welfare.” He is also a great storyteller who knows how to inspire, as well as challenge us.
The title of his latest book, On God’s Side, is taken from a quote by Abraham Lincoln, who said, “My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side.” To be on God’s side, in Wallis’s view, is to be on the side of the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed. He believes that social change doesn’t happen in the center of power, but on the margins, in movements that transform hearts and minds and thereby transform society. Wallis was a big supporter of the Civil Rights Movement, as well as Occupy Wall Street.
Wallis uses the story of the Good Samaritan to expand our understanding of what it means to “love our neighbor,” which he considers the most important commandment. He once told a group of business leaders to look at their cell phones not from the viewpoint of the supply chain, but of the values chain. The manufacturing of cell phones requires “dirty” minerals from places in the Congo and other areas controlled by militia that use profits for violent oppression of civilian populations.
“Imagine Jesus holding up our cell phones,” Wallis said to the business leaders. “‘Your neighbor,’ he might say, ‘is every man, woman, and child who touched the supply chain used to make your phone, or the clothes you wear, the computers you type on, the food you eat, and the cars you drive. Your global neighbors in those supply lines are all God’s children.’” This viewpoint is, of course, what motivated John Woolman when he refused to wear clothing or other products made from slave labor. Wallis describes many practices we recognize as Quaker from a biblical perspective that makes sense to Evangelical and other Bible-believing Christians. For Liberal Friends who want to love and work with our Evangelical Quaker neighbors, this book is enormously helpful since it provides a biblical and theological basis for what we believe and do. Wallis’s commitment to the common good also appeals to those who don’t identify with being Christian or any other faith (the so-called “nones” as in “none of the above”). “When we Christians do what we say,” says Wallis, “people who don’t believe are attracted.”
Committed to dialogue and civility, Wallis seeks to build bridges between conservatives and liberals by showing how both perspectives are necessary for the common good. Conservatives emphasize “personal responsibility,” while liberals emphasize “social responsibility.” According to Wallis, both are needed if we want to help eliminate poverty and foster justice, which should be the goal of any society, but especially one that claims to be an example to the world.
Wallis is committed to interfaith dialogue and cooperation as a way of loving your neighbor. He tells the story of a little church in Memphis, Tenn., the “buckle of the Bible belt.” During the ruckus over the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” in Manhattan, this little church learned that an Islamic center was being built next door, so they put up a sign saying “Heartsong Church Welcomes Memphis Islamic Center to the Neighborhood.” The Muslims were amazed and deeply moved, and soon a friendship developed between these two neighboring congregations. During Ramadan the Christians let the Muslims use their sanctuary for prayers since the Islamic Center building wasn’t yet finished. This story got worldwide coverage. One night Muslims in Kashmir called the pastor of the Heartsong Church to let him know, “God is speaking to us through this man,” and “we love you.” The Muslims of Kashmir said there was a little Christian church in their area, and they cleaned it, inside and out, and vowed to take care of it for the rest of their lives.
For me, one surprising revelation in On God’s Side is that Wallis decided to take three months off from his busy activist life to live in a Camaldolese monastery near Big Sur in Northern California. As a Quaker, I find it fascinating that Wallis is balancing his activist life with contemplation and prayer.
This is a book that should be required reading for all our elected officials, as well as for any Friend who wants to understand how to apply Jesus’s teachings to both the personal and political aspects of life. In the epilogue, Wallis offers ten personal decisions that will foster the common good. I have found it helpful to reflect on these “advices” by reframing them as queries. As Wallis says, “finding the integral relationship between our own personal good and the common good is our best hope for our future.” To which I say, “This Friend speaks my mind.”
Anthony Manousos, a member of Santa Monica (Calif.) Meeting, is a peace activist, teacher, author, and editor, whose most recent book is Howard and Anna Brinton: Re-inventors of Quakerism in the Twentieth Century (published by QuakerBridge Media of FGC, 2013).
Jesus Through Pagan Eyes: Bridging Neopagan Perspectives with a Progressive Vision of Christ
By Reverend Mark Townsend. Llewellyn Publications, 2012. 394 pages. $19.95/paperback; $9.99/eBook.
This book has two very different readerships in mind: “Pagans who still have some affection for the wandering teacher of Galilee” and “Christians who are open to new insights from a world far from their own.” Two Friends and friends, Jim Crocker-Lakness, a Quaker for 40 years and a Pagan for 15, and Paul Buckley, a Quaker for 35 years and an on-again, off-again Christian since birth, provide two reviews.
Reviewed by Jim Crocker-Lakness
This book offers thoughtful essays by and interviews with some of the most influential individuals in the Neopagan community today. It includes first-, second-, and third-generation students of Gerald Gardner, whose revival of Paganism in the 1950s led to the current Neopagan movement. The founders of two of the most important Pagan groups in the United States are also represented. These mothers and fathers of the modern Neopagan movement enhance the book’s credibility.
The writers and interviewees are not a representative sample, but do cover the spectrum. Of the 29 contributors, 19 were Christian in their youth, and some still are; about one-third are Druids and another third are Wiccans—the two largest Pagan denominations. The inclusion of so many Druid writers may, however, skew the overall presentation toward a more favorable perception of Jesus, since Druids are not exclusively Pagan and make a point of welcoming practicing Christians into their groves.
The expected Pagan narratives about Christianity are abundant: Christianity’s suppression of Paganism and appropriation of its holidays, stories, symbols, and rituals; the similarities in Jesus’s origin and mission to those of Pagan deities; and identifying Christianity as just one of many (mostly Pagan) mystery religions. But some explore beyond these commonplaces.
An essay by Diana Paxton shows more than conventional awareness of the canonical Jesus. Most of the contributors are familiar with the better known parables or statements of Jesus: the Good Samaritan, “love your neighbor,” the beatitudes, and the crucifixion and resurrection. Paxton discusses the genealogies, Jesus’s debate with Temple scholars, the Transfiguration, and Jesus’s sudden appearance on the road to Emmaus. Moreover, her examination of Jesus through the lens of African orishas and Haitian loas is at once good Paganism and responsible Christianity. Borrowing from John’s image of the Lamb of God, Paxton sees Jesus as a Horse of God, whom a divinity possesses and “rides” through the world. Paxton’s thoughtful understanding of both the Gospels and Pagan possession requires a thoughtful response, as it gives her perception of Jesus a depth not easily dismissed.
Also helpful are the chapters that struggle with fundamental Christian doctrines (e.g., Incarnation, Atonement, and Resurrection) and offer a unique Pagan understanding of Jesus, or explain how Paganism has enhanced the author’s relationship with Jesus. Especially welcome is the general recognition that contemporary Neopaganism needs more than a little of Jesus’s ethics, mainly selfless compassion, nonviolence, humility, generous sharing, and forgiveness.
Friends will enjoy two mentions of Quakers by highly regarded Pagans as one of the few Christian groups where the spirit of the historical Jesus may still be found. Finally, one contributor, Cassandra Eason, identifies herself as both Druid and Quaker, noting that British Friends “believe there is good or God/Goddess in everyone.”
Jim Crocker-Lakness is a member of Cincinnati (Ohio) Meeting where he is clerk of Ministry and Counsel. He has been a member of Kent (Ohio) Meeting, Nashville (Tenn.) Meeting, and Community Friends Meeting in Cincinnati. He celebrates the Wheel of the Year with several local Pagan groups and is a regular attender of the annual Pagan Spirit Gathering.
Reviewed by Paul Buckley
“There are many ideas about who Jesus was. Was he a wise man, prophet, fictional character, mythical figure, or the human embodiment of God?”
The assumptions you start with determine the endpoints you can reach. For example, if you assume there is no God, no argument in the world can ever lead to the determination that Jesus is the son of God. Sometimes, we try to fool ourselves into believing that we are starting out fresh—a blank slate, no assumptions, just pure observation—but it’s never true. To make sense of what we observe, we translate external stimuli into internal concepts. New sensory data are fit into a pre-existing framework of concepts, thought, and understanding. In invisible ways, that context colors what we see and hear and feel.
In Jesus Through Pagan Eyes, each new chapter seems to bring an entirely new set of initial assumptions, and consequently a different conclusion. I found some silly and some serious, some challenging and some inviting, some angry and hurt, but each gave me something to ponder.
All of the characterizations of Jesus listed above—and more—are found in this book. But it’s not out to convince readers that one conclusion is right and all others are wrong. It reveals views of the man Jesus and of the Christ in new and different ways—and, in doing so, suggests still more possibilities. The advantage for a Christian is that by seeing these alternatives, we can (perhaps) become aware of the unstated, unacknowledged assumptions we make, and (again, perhaps) scrape some of them away.
Modern writers frequently speak of viewing an event through a lens—a lens of tradition or nostalgia or science. Lenses bring things into focus. You can’t get rid of them entirely, but this book might identify some that need replacing and offer some new ones. It helped me clean some of mine.
Paul Buckley attends Community Friends Meeting in Cincinnati, Ohio. A Quaker historian and theologian, he occasionally teaches at the Earlham School of Religion. Paul has written books on William Penn and Elias Hicks, authored a widely-used pamphlet on the Lord’s Prayer, and co-edited The Quaker Bible Reader with Stephen Angell. In addition, he has written several dozen articles on contemporary Quaker faith and practice.
Captivity: 118 Days in Iraq and the Struggle for a World Without War
By James Loney. Vintage Canada, 2012. 432 pages. $27.95/hardcover, $18/paperback, $13.99/eBook.
Reviewed by William Shetter
Many Friends will remember the hostage crisis in Iraq which resulted in the murder of Quaker Tom Fox on March 9, 2006. Fox was in Iraq as a member of the international Christian Peacemaker Teams when in November 2005 he and three other members were taken hostage and held in a house in Baghdad. The other three men, two Canadian and one British, were held captive nearly four months until their release on March 23, 2006.
One of the Canadians was Jim Loney, who has written this book not only to tell us what those months of captivity were like, but also to reflect on the meaning of it all. The detailed narrative from “Day 1” to “Day 118” (not every day is commented on) is interspersed with a variety of background information and reflections from the author. Also included are numerous short entries from the notebook he used to keep track of his thoughts and emotions while a hostage. These reflections cover how the four men were coping and guarding their mental health, developments in Jim’s own mind and soul, their complicated reactions to their captors and to each other, the mindset and motivation of any oppressor, and prayers and a new psalm arising out of suffering.
Loney was afraid that being gay would put him in special danger (as it turned out, Tom Fox, being American, was in the greatest danger). In his journal, Loney admits that he had less of the sustained inner calm than the other three. So we regularly hear of his barely controllable feelings: “Anger flashes white and explodes. I stand up and get in [one of the captors’s] face . . . anger so caustic it threatens to eat me alive.” At one point he writes, “I look over at Tom. He’s serene, alert to everything, almost buoyant.” From his thorough detailing of the many discomforts of days and nights spent handcuffed and chained together, the reader gets a strong sense of the dreary, often hopeless succession of days: “We are hungry, always always hungry . . . we’ve become weak, listless, brittle with fatigue.”
We share Loney’s moral dilemmas: strongly identifying with the Iraqis’ suffering—and their need for money—yet realizing that the ransom to secure their freedom would be used for more killing and destruction. The book’s most memorable words come in his recounting of how the men were slowly able to establish a relationship with each other by finding humanity in their captors. “Your life depends on being seen as a human being,” he writes, and “every interaction with them is an opportunity to make them see our humanity.” He becomes able to understand the humanity of their captors: “We have begun to see…that our captors are afraid too.”
Loney was not quite mentally prepared for one of the younger captors to regularly ask him for a little tension-releasing massage. It does not lighten the heavy hand of oppression in this story to say that this group may have related better to their captors than other captives who have told their stories. When Loney says, “The captor cannot escape the task of having to come to terms with the humanity of the captive…Humor is a powerful tool in this regard,” the reader might wish that this were always true.
Loney continues his detailed narrative after their release, giving the reader a full account of their elation on emerging into freedom, and then his travels, interviews, and meetings with friends and relatives. The reader’s interest might flag, however, as the book reaches this somewhat anticlimactic ending.
The book’s message is found in the way Loney’s four months of captivity impelled him to think through the central issues of human solidarity, forgiveness, and peace. One of his notebook entries during captivity included a prayer for “[God’s] freedom, the freedom of being fully the person you created me to be . . . and . . . allowing others to be who they are, embracing them as they are. This is the mutual dialogue.”
William Shetter is a member of Bloomington (Ind.) Meeting. His daughter and Arab son-in-law live in the United Arab Emirates.
Wrestling in the Daylight: A Rabbi’s Path to Palestinian Solidarity
By Brant Rosen. Just World Books, 2012. 294 pages. $21.00/paperback.
Reviewed by Max L. Carter
Wrestling in the Daylight is a compilation of Rabbi Brant Rosen’s blog posts and selected readers’ responses, beginning with a post in response to Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead,” the attack on Gaza that began in December 2008. In that piece Rosen, the leader of an Evanston, Ill., Reconstructionist congregation, states that he is “tired of trying as a Liberal Jew to excuse the inexcusable” and goes on to express his principled opposition to the attack. He ends his entry with, “There, I’ve said it. Now what do I do?”
In the rest of the book, Rosen seeks to answer his own question while addressing the broader Israeli/Palestinian situation. He does not shy away from the most controversial topics, nor does he mince words in stating his own convictions. Nine chapters present Rosen’s thoughts on: Gaza, Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions (BDS), the Goldstone Report (on war crimes in the Gaza war), American Jews’ relationship with Israel, Palestinian liberation theology (the Kairos Palestine document), and the peace process. A consistent theme runs throughout: What is our responsibility to our “tribe,” and what is our ethical responsibility to humanity?
Rosen organizes a “fast for Gaza” and a gathering of “Rabbis Remembering the Nakba” (Arabic for “catastrophe,” the word used to describe the event Israeli Jews celebrate as the creation of the modern state of Israel in 1948). He refers to Israel’s policies in the occupied Palestinian territories as “apartheid” and even addresses the “third rail” in the Jewish community: withholding aid to Israel. He critiques Israel’s policy of “judaizing” East Jerusalem and points out “messianic” influences within the Israel Defense Force (IDF). As would be expected, such actions and language earn him a great deal of calumny, with the usual responses leveled at him: “why focus on Israel when other states have a far worse record in human rights?”; “don’t air our dirty laundry in public; it only encourages Anti-Semitism”; “you are a self-loathing Jew”; and “your facts are all wrong.”
Negative as well as positive responses are included, however, along with Rosen’s occasional responses to his critics—all offering an important insight into how these topics are discussed and the emotions they stir within the American Jewish community.
A helpful glossary of terms is included in the back of the book, along with an interesting appendix titled, “Hell Freezes Over: Cubs Win World Series, Jews Find Way to Disagree Agreeably,” that describes how Rosen’s congregation found a way to talk openly, honestly, and civilly about Israel.
Wrestling in the Daylight is published by Just World Books, an imprint of Just World Publishing, the publishing company of Quaker Middle East expert Helena Cobban. In a bleak landscape of reporting that fails to expose the nagging questions about justice in Israel/Palestine, Rosen’s book offers a ray of hope: that the great Jewish prophetic tradition and history of wrestling, not only with the text and each other, but also with G-d, can be applied helpfully to the Middle East.
Max L. Carter is the director of Friends Center and campus ministry coordinator at Guilford College, where he also directs the Quaker Studies program. He taught in the Ramallah Friends Schools as alternative service as a Vietnam War-era conscientious objector, and returns annually to the Middle East to lead work/study groups in the Ramallah Friends Schools and Israeli and Palestinian peace communities.