Review: From Judgement to Hope

From Judgment to Hope, Walter Brueggemann. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019.

Summary: A survey study of the prophets centering on the movement in these books from judgment to hope.

Walter Brueggemann is one of the foremost scholars on the prophetic literature in the Bible. This book represents a distillation of his scholarship, suited for an adult education course in a church or other group. He focuses on a common thread running through the books, a movement from judgment to hope similar to the New Testament movement from cross to resurrection to return in glory. He helps us understand the prophets in their historical context, their canonical context, and our contemporary context.

He begins with a chapter on the three major prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel offering this summary:

  • Isaiah: Jerusalem lost and renewed
  • Jeremiah: covenant broken and restored
  • Ezekial: temple nullified and revivified

Brueggemann, like many scholars, adheres to a “three Isaiah” approach to Isaiah and devotes a chapter to First Isaiah and one to Second and Third Isaiah. First Isaiah traces the announcements of God’s justice due to the people’s injustices, the temporary salvation and eventual fall of Jerusalem, culminating in that fall and hope for restoration. Second Isaiah begins with the highway for our God and culminates with Israel the Servant. The discussion of Third Isaiah centers on the house of prayer for all peoples, God’s chosen fast, and the Spirit of the Lord speaking through the prophet of the new Jerusalem.

Then Brueggemann reviews the “Minor Prophets” in four groups of three, with correspondence to the major prophets:

  • The eight century BCE prophets (Isaiah)
    • Amos: justice and righteousness
    • Hosea: steadfast love and knowledge of God
    • Micah: justice and kindness
  • The seventh century BCE prophets (Jeremiah) — focusing on punishment, both covenantal and cosmic dimensions
    • Nahum
    • Habakkuk
    • Zephaniah
  • The sixth century BCE prophets (Ezekiel) — focusing on restoration, both covenantal and cosmic dimensions
    • Haggai
    • Zechariah
    • Malachi
  • The outliers
    • Jonah
    • Obadiah
    • Joel

Brueggemann only focuses individual chapters on the eight and sixth century BCE prophets. Patricia K. Tull supplements Brueggemann’s work with an introductory overview and a book by book summary in rough chronological order. In the after matter, you will also find a timeline placing the books along key events, familiar quotations from Isaiah and a brief glossary.

This work does offer an introduction to the major contours of the prophetic books, but aside from reflection questions that seem better suited to individual reading, does not seem well-organized for an adult course. It is a good review, though it seems quite cursory especially in its treatment of the seventh century minor prophets and the “outliers.” Frankly, this was a bit disappointing for a Brueggemann work, and unless you are collecting everything he has written, I would pass this one by.

Review: The Rule of Laws

The Rule of Laws, Fernanda Pirie. New York: Basic Books, 2021.

Summary: A four thousand-year history of the ways different cultures have ordered their societies through various forms of law.

Every group of people develops rules to order their life together. And this has been true throughout history, whether through rulings of the city elders at the gate resolving various disputes through various legal codes. Fernanda Pirie set herself the task in this book of describing and making some sense of the four thousand year global history of laws in their various forms.

She identifies three major streams of law, the Mesopotamian that influenced the West, the Indian Brahmin, and that of China, influence much of east and southeast Asia. The book consists of three parts: the visions of order that accounted for the rise of these traditions from the Code of Hammurabi through to the European courts that arose in the wake of the fall of Rome; the development of these traditions in the Medieval period tracing the expansion upon religious law, imperial law in China and the courts and customs of Europe; and finally, law in the modern law and the development of the rule of law in western democracies and its import into colonial situations, the growth of Islamic Law, and the expansion of international law.

She traces a common thread through history: the use and development of law to order society–punishing murder, compensating injuries and damages, regulating marriage, family, and inheritance, protecting property and regulating commerce. She explores the various forms of laws from case laws to legal codes and common law, administrative structures to promulgate and implement legal codes from trade associations to royal courts, and the judicial structures to adjudicate disputes, determining guilt and innocence, and passing sentences. One of the most fascinating chapters traced the use of ordeal when the veracity of witnesses could not be readily discerned to the subsequent development of rules of evidence and trials by a jury of one’s peers. What is also striking is the fascinating array of ways in which all this was implemented from mediators to local to royal rulers and emperors, to our modern courts.

For me, the book alternated between fascinating discussions and hard slogs through an array of practices and their variations in various European royal courts, along with movement, often within chapters from European to Islamic to Chinese systems. The array of detail made it difficult at times to see the forest for all the individually interesting trees. I found it hard to discern a larger argument or structure with the mass of descriptive detail, apart from the overview and concluding discussions of the universal development of legal systems to organize social life.

Perhaps it is the task this author set herself, one for which she evidences obvious enthusiasm, to render a global history of law in under 460 pages of text. The tension between comprehensiveness and elegant structure must have been a challenge. The work has this in its favor, it is free of legal jargon and highly readable over all. And it raises the profound question of why so many and various cultures found it necessary to use laws to order their lives.

Review: What Are Christians For?

What Are Christians For?, Jake Meador. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2022.

Summary: An argument for a Christian politics that recognizes the goodness of all creation including all peoples, that rejects the manipulation of people and places and our own bodies that disregards their nature.

Jake Meador begins this work with the story of Father Ted, who helped a journalist covering apartheid South Africa, escape house arrest and the country. He represents to Meador a kingdom politics committed to life for the whole of life. Meador argues that much of American Christianity divorces faith from creation, from our embodied life, and other human beings, all for our own political and economic ends.

Drawing on the work of Herman Bavinck and Willie Jennings, he describes the immense inheritance we have inherited in the creation and one another. We repudiate this in our Western disregard of both the places we inhabit, living in accord with the particular character of that place, and in our colonization, in our disregard the peoples there before us. The particular expression of our alienation from God for those in the West is the exaltation of whiteness, and the oppression of others. Our reductionist education results in a loss of wonder.

Another reformer points the way back. Martin Bucer taught that the renewal of our relationship with God in Christ renews our relationship to neighbor, to proper governance, and to the care of the land. We learn again to accept the givenness of nature and our place in it. We embrace the household, marriage, and sexuality lived within that relationship, and lives of faithfulness to one another in sickness and health. And we embrace the larger community of God’s people in a particular place. Meador upholds the model of the Bruderhof, who renounce private ownership of material possessions. He advocates for the more challenging work of being this community in one’s own city and neighborhood.

I’m wrestling with my reaction to this book. Meador has great facility for drawing together the work of various theologians, philosophers, and writers, along with some great personal stories. Yet I found the thread of this argument not easy to follow, and a more prolix statement of what Wendell Berry articulates so straightforwardly in What Are People For? and other essays. But it is an important and perceptive argument. The gospel not only restores us to God but to our embodied existence, each other as families and communities, states and the world, and to God’s good earth. It is apparent that our politically and economically captive churches have not heard this enough and this message is so urgent that it cannot be spoken and written and lived enough, until we recover a sense of what Christians are for.

____________________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Beyond Racial Division

Beyond Racial Division, George Yancey. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2022.

Summary: Proposes as an alternative to colorblind or antiracist approaches, one of collaborative conversation and mutual accountability to overcome racial divisions.

I witnessed it in our Ohio senatorial primary. One candidate stood at the Edmund Pettus Bridge invoking Dr. King in support of race blind policies. Another candidate spoke against the ire raised by being called “racist” for concern about people entering the country illegally. I do not wish to debate these claims but to cite them as an example of the divergent approaches being used to address the racial fault lines in this country: one being colorblindness, arguing that it is the emphasis on race that exacerbates our divisions, particular the invidious label of “racist.” The other is the “antiracist” strategy, one that is used widely in various forms in diversity training. It argues that a majority group inherently seeks to preserve its power and to subordinate others. Antiracism challenges all the systems and structures that maintain this power, demands activism (“you are either an antiracist or a racist”), and that whites must support antiracist efforts of blacks by persuading other whites and pressing for financial restitution for historic abuses.

George Yancey, a black sociologist at Baylor University believes neither of these strategies are working, and are actually contributing to deepening divisions. Colorblindness fails to acknowledge the present effects of historic abuses and the systems and structures that sustain discrimination against racial groups. Antiracist approaches often antagonize and alienate the very parties needed to make progress in addressing racial ills, shaming and stigmatizing those they consider the problem. They may gain grudging compliance or achieve political victories while fostering ongoing resentments and resistance.

What he proposes instead is a mutual accountability model. He describes this model as follows:

This model stipulates that we work to have healthy interracial communications so that we can solve racial problems. In those communications we strive to listen to those in other racial groups and attempt to account for their interests. In this way we fashion solutions to racialized problems that address the needs of individuals across racial groups instead of promoting solutions that are accepted only by certain racial groups. By allowing those we disagree with to hold us “accountable” to their interests, we are forced to confront the ways we have fashioned solutions that conform to our own interests and desires.

Yancey, p. 35.

Active listening is an essential skill necessary to these collaborative conversations–the listening that seeks to understand rather than to fashion an argumentative response. It is an approach that take problem-solving rather than venting seriously, following this process:

  1. Define the racial problem.
  2. Identify what we have in common.
  3. Recognize our cultural or racial differences.
  4. Create solutions that answer the concerns of the racial outgroup.
  5. Find a compromise solution that works best for all. (p. 46)

Before going on to contend for this model, he addresses the failure of colorblindness to address the reality of institutional discrimination and the failure of antiracism due to its reliance on power and compulsion rather than the moral suasion where former adversaries become convinced allies.

Yancey offers empirical support for his model with a qualification. He cites research showing the effectiveness of mutual accountability in fostering agreement and collaboration between parties. The big “but” is that no significant research has yet been done on the effectiveness of this model in reducing racial bias, although some research from diversity programs suggest that “intergroup contact and cooperative interventions within diversity training efforts have promising potential to reduce prejudice.” He then turns to theological support for his model, noting the examples of resolution of intergroup conflict such as Acts 6. In a world under the illusion of human perfectibility, the Bible reminds us of our depravity and the folly of relying on our own intelligence and moral sense. Finally, he considers how mutual accountability might work in our lives.

He concludes with a call for a mutual accountability movement in addressing racial issues. He offers the example of Sean Sheppard, founder and CEO of Game Changer, a California-based organization working with communities and police departments using collaborative conversation and mutual accountability methods. While not seeing himself as a movement organizer, he hopes to mobilize social media influencers and to promote the work of the Baylor Program for Collaborative Conversation and Race, a research and training center to fill the gap in empirical research in apply mutual accountability models to racial issues.

I have to acknowledge that my response to this work is that of a white boomer male. I admit to having felt shamed and stigmatized and silenced precisely because of that status, which I cannot change no matter how much I do in the cause of antiracism. I also have seen how inadequate colorblind solutions are, which I believe are attempts to “heal lightly our nation’s racial wounds.” Yancey gives word to the lack of ease I’ve had with both of these approaches. What he advocates seems to me to be rooted in the way of peace and reconciliation I’ve learned as a Christian.

Still, I find myself wondering whether this alone is adequate. I can’t imagine there being those willing to sit down in conversations of mutual accountability to desegregate schools, public accommodations, or grant voting rights. Strategies of court cases, disciplined protest marches and boycotts, non-violent resistance, and the return of love for hate were necessary because no one was at the table with them.

I also wonder how words like “mutual” and “collaborative” work when through history Blacks have born far more than their share of the burden of reconciling our race relations. I think there is a point to be heard in the insistence of antiracist trainers that Whites “need to do the work.” I suspect that language can alienate, but I’m afraid that Yancey’s language could allow those in the majority culture to offload their own responsibility in an unhelpful way.

Still, while there have been real advances in civil rights, I see us more deeply racially polarized and tribalized than almost any time in my adult life, despite extensive DEI efforts in many companies and institutions. Might it be time to try approaches that get people together as collaborators in shared solutions to which they are mutually accountable? That’s the question Yancey is asking, and one that I think is not unreasonable, based on both research and the failings of other approaches.

____________________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: That Distant Land

That Distant Land, Wendell Berry. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2004.

Summary: A collection of short stories about the Port William membership not part of the longer novels.

If you’ve read a number of the fictional short stories of Wendell Berry, it is likely that you have encountered some of the stories in this collection. Stories from three earlier publications are represented here, although some differ slightly in the telling: The Wild Birds, Fidelity, and Watch with Me. I didn’t mind, though. It was delightful to revisit the courtship of Ptolemy Proudfoot and Minnie Quinch, to chuckle when the temperate Minnie determines to “dispose” of the half-pint of Old Darling Ptolemy had bought for lambing, or feel a sense of vindication when Ptolemy reveals he is far from the country bumpkin and gets the last laugh in “The Lost Bet.”

Two of the stories from Fidelity were a particular joy, both involving the lawyer Wheeler Catlett, who worked as hard to preserve the membership as any in Port William. The title work, “That Distant Land” conveys the bittersweet reflections also found in “The Wild Birds” at the losses to modernity Port William has suffered but also his dawning realization that the illegitimate son of Burley Coulter, who Burley wants to inherit his land is also part of that membership, not only by birth but through his care of the land in the company of Burley and others of the membership. “Fidelity,” I think is simply one of the greatest pieces of short story fiction. Danny “rescues” (or kidnaps, in the eyes of the law) Burley from the hospital where he is being kept alive on life support which is merely prolonging his dying at great expense. This was before the hospice movement, and the recognition of how providing a dignified dying in a familiar place is indeed fidelity to the dying. The beauty of what Danny does (not euthanasia but simply allowing Burley a natural death) and the way the membership stands together to protect him from the legal ramifications is both consummate storytelling and thought provoking.

There were several stories I hadn’t read before that I savored. “Making It Home” tells the story of Art Rowanberry’s military service, his recovery from the physical wounds and the mental ones that remain, as he walks home through countryside once again familiar, making it in time for dinner. “The Discovery of Kentucky” is one of those wisdom tales that shows how pompous pretensions can go sideways at the inaugural parade when a float to commemorate Kentucky is manned by Burley and his friends, when best-laid plans go awry and when the float sponsor totally fails to realize how the sign he has posted will be read in light of everything else. “The Inheritors,” which closes out the collection describes one of the final encounters between Wheeler Catlett and Danny Branch. Wheeler, who is slowly failing of body and mind, persuades Danny to drive him to a stock sale and then subjects Danny to a hair-raising drive home on the wrong side of the Interstate. Through it all, one senses an intimacy between the two, a passing of the baton and a blessing as Wheeler comes to the point of relinquishing his membership as Danny fully takes it up.

This is a fantastic collection of 23 of Berry’s Port William short stories, the best thing to read if you haven’t read any of the other works represented here. The arrangement of the stories is chronological and tells the story of a community over nearly a hundred year period. The book also includes a detailed map of Port William and a family tree of the Beechum, Feltner, and Coulter family lines. This is a great accompaniment to the Port William novels, which are indicated chronologically in the table of contents. All told, this work is one more reminder of the great contribution Mr. Berry has made to American literature.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Paul C Bunn

Paul C. Bunn

To many of us, the name of Paul C. Bunn is attached to an elementary school in Brownlee Woods, either the original one opened in 1960, or the new one opened in 2008. For older readers, you will remember Paul C. Bunn as the superintendent of the Youngstown City Schools from 1944 until 1956, when he retired. He was a remarkable community leader who left his mark on the district. Under his leadership, my high school building, Chaney High School, was built, replacing the old Chaney, which became West Jr. High.

Bunn was born February 9, 1885 in Salineville, Ohio. He attended the College of Wooster and then earned his Masters degree from Columbia University. After just two years of teaching in Salineville, he became superintendent of Bettsville schools. Later he moved to Ashtabula Harbor as a teacher and then for four years as principal of the high school. He went on to twenty-one years as a high school principal in Lorain followed by nine years as superintendent. For many these days, they would be thinking of retirement at this point. Instead, Bunn accepted the job as superintendent of Youngstown City Schools.

He was a progressive educator for his day. He proposed adding a 13th and 14th grade for those not going on to college. He reinstated kindergarten, which had been suspended in the 1930’s. You’ve heard the phrase “permanent record”? He led the adoption of a permanent record plan which tracked students education throughout their time in Youngstown schools. From the suggestions of school students, he compiled a Bill of Duties, printed in color, framed and hung in every classroom. Howard C. Aley observed, “Mr Bunn contended that every child should be taught the fundamental virtues of obedience, respect for authority, and reverence for God, home, and country.”

He renovated the old Wood Street School into what became the Choffin Vocational Center, and launched a practical nurses training program. He led the construction of the Williamson, Elm, Kirkmere, North, and Chaney buildings and additions and renovations to many other schools to welcome the baby boomers who were filling the classrooms. He created adult education programs and used the new technology of TV to start weekly programs on WKBN and WFMJ. He streamlined the process by which veterans could obtain a high school diploma by passing a general education test. Guidance and psychological testing programs were set up.

He was a member, and often leader of, a variety of educational associations. In Youngstown, he was on the Boy Scout executive council, the YMCA, the Youngstown Club, the Youngstown Safety Council, a trustee of the library and a 32nd degree Mason. He taught Sunday School and served as an elder at First Presbyterian Church. After his retirement as superintendent of schools he went on to serve as director of the Mahoning County Council for Retarded Children, a position he was serving in at the time of his death.

He died on April 8, 1957 after suffering from a stroke on March 22 from which he never regained consciousness. The Vindicator editorial on April 9 1957 stated that “the children’s welfare was the first consideration.” He was described as “a leader, never a driver” and that he “was an example of the saying that if you want something done, go to the busiest man in town.”

It is fitting that the Paul C. Bunn Elementary School has Three Universal Expectations: Respect, Responsibility, and Safety. I think Bunn would be nodding his head in agreement and would have graciously but firmly expected students, teachers, and administrators to all live up to those ideals. He more than did, and the education many of us received in Youngstown’s schools are a legacy of his leadership.

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

Review: Playing Favorites

Playing Favorites, Rodger Woodworth. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2021.

Summary: All of us prefer the company of those like us while the gospel bids us to engage across cultures, with those unlike us, challenging us to stop “playing favorites.”

We like to think of ourselves as tolerant and unprejudiced. But the fact is that all of us prefer the company of those like us and unconsciously are biased against those different from us. Yet as Christians, we worship a God who shows no partiality and calls us to live that way. Even if we agree with this idea, how do we experience change in our propensity to prefer those who are like us? Rodger Woodworth explores that question in this book.

It begins with humility, recognizing that all we have comes of the grace of God. We are not the great stuff we think we are and we might do well to recognize as more significant. Instead Woodworth observes we often cling to the life-preservers of our abilities, our race, our political party, our social status, and our culture. When we do so, we lose sight of the impartial God of grace and become partial toward others. We build walls for which Christ died to create peace between “us” and “them” making a new people that are just “us.” Why then do we resurrect barriers?

Woodworth explores all the people with whom Jesus broke down barriers: lepers, gentiles, and women. God’s grace makes us all even as we see in the parable of the workers: all were hired at his initiative, all were paid a full day’s wage, and God made them all equal (which bothers the heck out of many of us!). He traces Peter’s journey to overcome partiality–from declaring that God shows no favoritism in the house of Cornelius to retreating when Jewish brothers saw him hanging out with Gentiles and being rebuked for his hypocrisy by Paul.

Will we be those who tear down the fences and cross the street to love the neighbor who is different as the Samaritan did? Drawing on Miroslav Volf, he suggests that this may begin with examining our assumptions about the other and listening to how the other thinks of us and then taking the risk to invite the other into our lives. Drawing on his church-planting experience in an urban context he describes his own efforts to bridge cultural divides. He urges, “focus on the marginalized over the multitudes.” He paints a picture of becoming a third culture people, opening and embracing, but not crushing, and who can both remain close to and critique our home culture.

Woodworth concludes with practical advice: to make prayer, particularly for one’s own transformation, a priority, to learn from the perspectives of those who are different, to find a person from whom one can learn, to submit to service providers of different races, and be willing to enter situations where you are the minority.

This is a pithy little book (82 pages plus discussion guide) with a laser-focus on one thing–moving from playing favorites to bridging cultural divides and embracing those different than us. Woodworth has “walked the talk,” and the feel of the book is an invitation to “come with me and do as I have done.”

____________________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Work Pray Code

Work Pray Code, Carolyn Chen. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2022.

Summary: A sociologist studies how Silicon Valley tech firms bring religion into the workplace, replacing traditional religious institutions, blurring the line of work and religion.

I’ll just say it up front. Anyone who cares about the future of work needs to read this book. Carolyn Chen, a sociologist at UC Berkeley, spent 2013 to 2017 immersing herself in the tech world of Silicon Valley as a participant observer of the trend of incorporating religious practices into the work life of Silicon Valley companies. She did over 100 in-depth interviews and attended retreats, mindfulness sessions, and various “wellness” programs offered by companies.

What she observed was the expansion of work in these companies to fill the whole of workers lives. Many ate two to three meals a day at work, often catered by the companies, along with healthy snacks. They worked out in company gyms and walked on pathways, placed children in company daycare facilities, and learned meditation practices at company-sponsored retreats and used company-provided meditation spaces. For many of these workers, their place of work has become the source of personal, social, and spiritual fulfillment. At the same time, the involvement of many of these workers in traditional religious institutions and other community and civic institutions has waned.

What Chen chronicles at one level is corporate concern for the whole person. Yet underneath this, Chen discerns that so much of this concern for the “whole person” is driven by productivity concerns, to get the “whole person’s” devotion to the corporate mission. Workers spoke of “drinking the kool aid” in terms eerily reminiscent of cult-like groups, leading Chen to conclude that in many of these workers’ lives, their work is their religion.

The “religious” element draws from the meditative practices of Buddhism, shorn of the metaphysical and ethical content. A number of scientific and pseudo-scientific rationalizations are offered by the coaches and teachers who make up a “mindfulness” industry that offers services to these companies. Many are Zen teachers in temples who find this a way to support themselves, particularly as interest in the traditional religious institution wanes. The focus is on focus, helping people become fully attentive, self-aware, and present to their work. But Chen chillingly observes that an amoral “focus” can be turned both to life-enhancing work and to murder. For the teachers, it is a Faustian bargain, profitable contracts that vitiate the real religious content of their Buddhism–“replacing it with a universalized, Whitened, scientized, profitable, and efficient Buddhism.” Furthermore it is a thin religion that fails to challenge the unjust caste system in tech firms that offers these benefits to the elite tech workers, but not to the support staff.

Her concluding chapter addresses the dangers of what she calls “techtopia.” She describes the monopolization of human energy pulling people away from the communities where they live, from civic and religious involvements. She expresses her concern for what happen to communities when religious and civic institutions suffer. She also expresses concern for workers, who give themselves to this religion until they are used up, and really can’t leave this world, reinventing themselves as coaches when they can no longer bear the totalizing pull of the corporations. Individual “resistance” to this pull is not enough, in her view. She believes the answer is to invest in non-work communities–faith communities, neighborhoods, families, and civic associations.

Reading this work makes me think about whether what she describes in Silicon Valley is a picture of the future of work on a wider basis or whether this is a local phenomenon. I cannot help but think this is going to grow, although I also wonder how the trend to remote work resulting from the pandemic will affect this. Chen briefly touches on this, observing that remote work can actually contribute to work demanding even more of one’s life, as commute times are eliminated and one never “clocks out.” I also wonder if other industries that demand heavy investments of their workers might pursue similar strategies–for example, the health care industry.

The fusion of religion and work Chen describes occurs at a time when trust in religious institutions is at a low point and there is a “great resignation” going on among pastors and other religious leaders. Chen describes a spiritual hunger that suggests a great opportunity for religious institutions able to pivot. They can’t simply promote “butts in seats.” They have to address the big questions of meaningful life, humble and authentic communal life extending welcome and inclusion, and spiritual practices connecting the transcendent and every day life.

This work also implies an important discussion to be had about the renewal of our communities in an age of anomie, of the weakening of critical local institutions. The answer isn’t to be found in workplace or political cults. Many of our local communities are becoming combat zones that neither workplace or political cults can truly address. Only strong local institutions can do so–and this only if work is limited to its appropriate place in our lives, allowing the time to invest in the places where we live.

____________________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Heinrich Heine (Everyman’s Poetry #28)

Heinrich Heine (Everyman’s Poetry #28), Heinrich Heine (Translated and edited by T. J. Reed and David Cram: London: Everyman/J. M. Dent, 1997.

Summary: A collection of translated poems of Heinrich Heine.

Heinrich Heine composed poetry during the height of the romantic period. Some of his early lyric poetry was set to music by Schubert and Schumann. His later poetry reflects a certain cynicism toward romanticism. For example, the opening poem in this collection, Prologue, begins with him “walking into a fairy wood” and concludes with a statue of The Sphinx coming ravenously to life: “her kisses drove me wild/Her claws dug in again.”

A favored theme is one of beautiful, romantic beginnings with sad or grievous endings, typified in the poem “Sweet-bitter,” beginning with loving embraces under the lindens (lindens are everywhere in Heine) only to end with “the coldest curtsey” and frosty goodbyes. There are poems that draw on mythology, such as The Lorelei, of a beautiful blonde siren atop a rocky outcropping, who distracts shipman who crash upon the rocks. He also has a poem on the Tannhauser legend.

Some of his poetry is political. Heine supported revolutionary movements and fled Germany to Paris in 1831, resenting the censorship of his works. By 1835, his work was banned in Germany. His Germany: A Winter’s Tale is a barbed commentary on its pretensions. In No Need to Worry he observes:

We call them 'fathers', it's 'fatherland'.
Which makes it easy to understand
Why it all belongs to them, and we
Have sausage and sauerkraut for tea.

In October 1849 marks the failed revolutions of 1848. He laments:

This time the Austrian Ox has made
An ally even of the Bear.
Take comfort, Magyar, though you fall --
We have a far worse badge of shame to wear.

During the last eight years of his life, Heine was paralyzed and confined to bed. His poems are increasingly dominated by reflections on his own mortality. Double Vision is an encounter with an doppelganger, one healthy, one sickly that ends with the healthy one pummeling the sick one only to find he was pummeling himself. You may recognize Morphine and its concluding, Job-like lines:

To sleep is good, and death is better, but
Far better still never to have been born.

Heine captures the reality of life as bittersweet. Our loftiest aims will often end disappointed. Life is a tragicomedy for Heine and many of his poems are satires on the romantics with a grotesque or bitter twist. This translation seems to capture the almost “tongue-in-cheek” ironic character of Heine’s poetry. It is accessible, easy to read, even as one ponders the ironic twists. This work, if you can find it, is a wonderful introduction to this unusual poet.

Review: Enjoying the Old Testament

Enjoying the Old Testament, Eric A. Seibert. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: Seibert deals with the confusing, troubling, or uninteresting experience of many, suggesting the value of reading the Old Testament, and reading strategies for engagement with the text bring life and interest to the Old Testament scriptures.

Have you ever tried reading through the Old Testament and gotten lost in Leviticus or numbed by Numbers and given up the whole project? Sure, at times you read selected texts, maybe from Psalms and Proverbs, or some narratives like Ruth or Jonah (a kids favorite but with important relevance to the rest of us!). Mostly, you confine yourself to the New Testament, which you consider the most relevant portion of the Bible for Christians. But sadly, when we lose the Old Testament, we lose three-quarters of the Bible.

Until a course with an inspiring professor who helped him enjoy reading the Old Testament, Eric Seibert was in much the same place. And that is the object of this book, to pass along ways of reading the Old Testament that are enjoyable, as well as good for us. Most of what he proposes don’t involve more than a Bible, a comfortable chair, paper and pencil.

He begins by laying the groundwork for reading the Old Testament. He acknowledges that there are parts that are boring, or baffling, or even theologically troubling, and then, given that, why we should bother. He actually discounts the standard answer of needing to read the Old Testament to understand the New. He explores the relevance of the Old Testament on its own terms: fascinating stories, models of gutsy faith, resources for worship and prayer, a revelation of a God of lavish love, and God’s concern for justice. He deals with expectations, both unrealistic ones such as the Old Testament all being readily understandable and more realistic ones like a variety of genres, theological perspectives, a worldview different than our own, passages written for many reasons, and the presence of violence and other troubling texts. He invites us to adopt a mindset of carefully observing, of expectancy, of humility and respect, and honest engagement.

He then turns to our enjoyment of Old Testament texts. He starts by inviting us to read favorite stories all the way through, offering tips to understand their significance. He particularly calls attention to repetition, using the tabernacle instructions as an example. He invites us to be curious and ask lots of questions of the text. He sets aside a chapter to focus on reading the prophets, understanding their roles as God’s messengers, and their use of various persuasive techniques. He draws the distinction between judgement and salvation oracles.

He discusses approaches to the boring parts using Leviticus 1-7 as a case study. He encourages slowing down and looking at laws to see if there is a principle that may apply (e.g. the negligent owner of the ox known to gore). Then he returns to the matter of troubling texts, which he encourages us to be honest about and to hang in with them and bring them into conversation with other texts on the same topic that are not troublesome, observing that skeptics only focus on the former. Seibert also recognizes that one might need to take a break from troubling texts in difficult seasons of life.

The final section of the book focuses on a number of different activities that can help one read through books or even the whole Old Testament. He encourages drawing maps, creating simple charts that outline a book or portion, memorizing passages, listening audibly, or reading from a different perspective–for example as a Canaanite the passages about the Israelite invasion. He commends topical, artistic, and reflective approaches. He discusses surveying a book and breaking it into major thought blocks. As he concludes, he invites us to be balanced, use variety and flexibility, to preserve what we learn, and to join with others.

What is delightful about this book is that the author resists the temptation to write an Old Testament introduction but rather gives the reader tools to make his or her own discoveries. Without minimizing the challenges of the Old Testament, Seibert offers lots of hope that we can read through the Old Testament, read whole books of the Old Testament and find substantial enjoyment and spiritual benefit. On the troubling passages, he doesn’t offer easy answers or answers at all, but rather approaches that imply we may live with troubling passages in some cases but this does not need to distract us from other other more enjoyable texts. This is a great resource for an adult class in a church or a college class in a Christian college context.

____________________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.