November 2016

Executing Grace

Shane Claiborne, Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why it's Killing Us (New York: Harper One) 2016.

Claiborne - Executing Grace
I need to begin by simply stating that I have long been an opponent of the death penalty. As the brother of a murder victim, I am well aware that revenge has no place in the search for healing in the midst of grief and that the myth of closure can be dangerous for those who have been affected by serious and terrible crimes. The only path to restitution leads to the difficult and awful task of forgiveness. Having said that, I believe that Claiborne's thorough and well-written book will appeal to those who favor the death penalty and those who are opposed as a cogent argument. Even those who disagree will find his honesty and frank approach to be helpful.

Above all else, this is a book of real stories of real people. The stream of names printed across the bottom of every page represents those who have been killed by the death penalty in society's attempts at justice. The stories of victims, of those on death row, of the exonerated, and of the prison wardens and staff who participate in the system paint a picture of a system that is in need of revision and restoration.

This book is a "must-read" for people of faith who are serious about bringing their faith to the pressing social issues of our time. Those who are serious about grace and mercy need to carefully read his biblical analysis and consider the stories he tells.

This is a book that I will recommend to others often.

The First Paul

Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church's Conservative Icon (New York: Harper One) 2009.

Borg - The First Paul
This book has been out for a while, but Borg and Crossan are very prolific and I don't try to keep up with everything they write. However, a friend recently recommended this book as a way to gain a bit of perspective on the Epistles and it was definitely useful for that purpose. The two scholars propose that there are probably at least three expressions of Pauline literature in the New Testament: Original texts most likely written by Paul himself, texts written in the style of Paul, but possibly written by disciples or followers of Paul, and later documents that are attributed to Paul, but not even especially in his style or manner. Borg and Crossan urge readers to look to what we can discern about Paul himself and his institution-challenging statements and beliefs. His radical Christianity confronted power and privilege and called followers to preach Christ crucified in the face of the authority of Roman and other imperial powers.

It is helpful to view Paul in his first-century context against the background of Roman imperial power offering an alternative way of life and an alternative way of viewing the world.

The book is very readable and accessible to those who are not scholars as well as to those who are students of the Epistles.

Barren Grounds

Fred "Skip" Pessl, Barren Grounds: The Story of the Tragic Moffatt Canoe Trip (Hanover, New Hampshire: Dartmouth College Press) 2014.

Pessl - Barren Grounds
Nearly six decades after their 1955 wilderness canoe trip and more than 15 years after George Grinnell published his account of the journey, Skip Pessl has produced an excellent and very accurate account of the trip. Based on his own personal journals and those of Peter Franck and filled with photographs of the journey which were provided by Craig Moffatt, the book pros ides a nearly day-to-day account of the events that resulted tin the September 14 multiple capsize that resulted in the death of Arthur Moffatt and forever marked what might otherwise have become an amazing documentary movie about six men facing the wilderness together.

Having already read Grinnell's "Death on the Barrens," I found Pessl's account to contain many important details, including more accurate descriptions of the route and activities of the explorers. It is a compelling account.

However, the book is somewhat diminished by its epilogue. Pessl still carries a great deal of intense anger and unresolved grief over the death of Moffatt and in the epilogue he directs that anger against Grinnell. He tries to make a point by point refutation of Grinnell's book, but only succeeds in making a point that most readers already know - different people have different memories of shared events. The decades between the actual events and the publication of the books has resulted in different perspectives, different memories, and different interpretations. Instead of letting his excellent book stand on its own and be the authentic record that it is, Pessl wades into his anger and criticism of Grinnell. It is as if he doesn't trust his own account to stand on its own merits.

That aside, I heartily recommend this book to all who are interested in canoe expeditions, wilderness exploration and the remote areas of Northern Canada.

Death on the Barrens

George James Grinnell, Death on the Barrens: A True Story of Courage and Tragedy in the Canadian Arctic (Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books) 2016 edition.

Grinnell - Death on the Barrens
The 1955 Moffatt expedition from Lake Athabasca to Dubwant Lake and down the Dubwant River to the RCMP station on Baker Lake was an incredible challenge even in the 1950's. In a time before GPS and accurate satellite maps, there were all sorts of ways for the expedition to meet with tragedy. The fact that the expedition leader, Arthur Moffatt was trying to create a movie added to the complexity and challenges of the trip. Equipped with 3 18' Chestnut Prospector wood and canvas canoes, a team of six undertook the voyage. Starting just a little bit late, their pace was slow enough that they were in trouble by the time they reached the point of no return. the approach of cold weather, the prospect of encountering an iced-in lake, and the shortness of food created a temptation to take shortcuts and one shortcut - running a set of rapids without properly scouting them - turned into disaster. Two of the canoes swamped. Five of the six explorers ended up in the water. Necessary gear including tents and sleeping bags was lost to the river.

It took more than 40 years after the expedition for Grinnell to write his book. And, apparently his book sparked something in another of the expedition's participants, Fred "Skip" Pessl, to write his own account of the journey in a book that came out from Dartmouth College Press in 2014. I am currently reading that book and will review it here when I have finished it.

Grinnell's book is based on his own memories and doesn't seem to be based on the journals of other participants in the trip and I'm sure that the story is told with a bias. Nonetheless, the reality is that a tragedy occurred that might have been prevented, but to which no particular blame can be laid. The loss of Arthur Moffatt might not have occurred in this day of better equipment, satellite phones, helicopter evacuation and other safety nets. The complete isolation and self reliance of the team, however, is part of what made the expedition such a great adventure.

Others have ventured into the Barrens since, and I've read several other accounts of expeditions and explorations in the region, but Grinnell's account of the expedition should hold the interest of anyone interested in canoe camping and expeditions.

Becoming Wise

Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living (New York: Penguin Press) 2016.

Tippett - Becoming Wise
I really enjoy listening to "On Being" hosted by Kirsta Tippett. She is a superb interviewer and the range of people that she chooses to interview is very interesting to me. I listen to the program as a podcast and often sort of "binge," listening to three or four programs in a row. And I was deeply impressed with her first book, Speaking of Faith. This volume holds a similar interest for me and I enjoyed very much the sections of the book that report the details of conversations and interviews she has had with other thinkers. However, the overall thrust of the book was just a bit disappointing to me. I expected a tad more depth in the discussions.

I guess I understand her movement away from the perspective of an established religion to a broader and more open conversation, but i sort of miss the old "Speaking of Faith" approach in which she was open in her explorations of faith. Frankly I thought the section on Love was a bit light weight. She had already done a section on Flesh in which she spoke of embodiment and human existence so I had hoped that her section on love might be a bit less focused on romance and more on deep, connected relationships that endure over time. It is possible that her divorce has colored here opinion about commitment and promise, but a discussion of love that completely ignores those factors left me wanting more.

All in all, however, it is a significant book and a good contribution to a field that is in need of more thoughtful writers in our particular time. Her discussions are important and I marked dozens of passages to which I will return as I explore my own writing and thinking.

Beauty is a Verb

Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black, & Michael Northen, ads., Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability (El Paso: Cinco Puntos Press) 2011.

Beauty is a Verb
When it comes to poetry, I am a rather slow reader. I need time to process and think and revisit poems to discern their rhythm and tonality. I'm a much more quick reader of prose. This book contains both. Each artist represented in the book has written a few pages of commentary on their art and the artistic process. Still, I spent months with this book.

The book is overwhelming in many different ways. First of all, the poetry demands attention. The density of words, the wondering about tonality and how the author might read the poems means that a serious reader reads each poem multiple times. It is overwhelming in its poetic density. There is a lot of poetry in this book. But it is also overwhelming in its scope. Disability is far from a single category. The wide range of disabilities represented draws in virtually revery reader. At some point in the book, I suspect most readers will experience what I did: a sense that I have or will develop that particular disability. There are many authors whose lives are marked by disabilities that are visible and of which we are aware: those who use crutches or wheelchairs for mobility, those who are blind, those who have cognitive disabilities, those who cannot hear. But there are also those whose disease causes intense pain or an unpredictability of their lives.

The result is an amazing collection and a very readable and important book. I think this collection serves to define a new genre of poetry for the 21st Century. I'm delighted and looking forward to more poetry of disability to provide the artistic window through which we can look at our lives.

For the Time Being

W. H. Auden, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press) 2013 edition

Auden - for the Time Being
I have been wanting to do something different for Advent and Christmas for several years now. Our 2012 reworking of our congregation's Lenten and Holy Week observances have proven to be meaningful and to increase participation in Holy Week services by the members of the congregation. I didn't expect this historic piece to transform Advent observances, but I did hope that Auden's poetry might stir some thoughts in me and stir they did.

Auden wrote this oratorio before he was fully accomplished in idiomatic English. It shows awkwardness in a few places, but the thing that impressed me the most was the sheer density of the language. I tried reading it silently, but it was just too confounding to even follow the flow of the words without the sounds and rhythm of reading out loud. I worked my way slowly through the oratorio, trying to imagine the various characters and how the piece might be stages, though stage productions of the work are virtually unheard of.

Striking and even stunning is the monologue (with chorus) of Simeon. The language is so dense and complex that I found myself seeking someone to read the piece to that together we might unpack some of its meaning. Similarly dense is the explanation of the killing of the innocents and the flight to Egypt.

All in all, it is a masterful blending of the contemporary and the ancient in a retelling of the Christmas narrative that takes a look at the feelings of the participants.

Frankly, I can't imagine staging the play. I can't even imagine what it would be like to listen to it all in one sitting. I suspect that it is just too dense, too rich and too wordy to carry its meaning in such a setting. As an epic poem, however, it is worthy of a careful read. In fact, it left me thinking that one day I will need to read it again just to see what I missed on the first trip through.

Healthy Boundaries

Faith Trust Institute: Healthy Boundaries 101 - Fundamentals: A Course for Clergy and Spiritual Teachers (Seattle, WA: Faith Trust Institute) 2012

Healthy Boundaries 101 - Fundamentals
I have been an advocate for regular and recurrent boundary training for all clergy and church leaders for most of my career, so I am pleased at each opportunity to receive training myself. I took time to read and work my way through the workbook as well as attend the sessions of the course. This book is a very good basic course for those unfamiliar with boundary training. However, since I've been taking these classes for a quarter of a century or more, I long for something that goes beyond the fundamentals. It is good to be reminded of the reasons for healthy boundaries and to engage in self-care plans to make sure that one respects those boundaries, but there are some very nuanced and perhaps more in-depth ethical discussions that might be more interesting than just the "introduction to" material that is presented in this course and in the other recurrent trainings that I have attended.

Perhaps an extra discussion could be added that would focus on some of the areas where we clergy have less experience such as the ethics and boundaries of retirement or healthy boundaries in political discussions and election-year preaching. I think that if I were given time, I could find quite a few areas of ethical discussion that would be meaningful and worthy of consideration.

Nonetheless, the book is well done and should be required reading for all clergy, not just those of us who serve in mainline denominations.

Collected Poems of Robert Service

Robert Service, Collected Poems of Robert Service (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons) 1940.

Collected Poems of Robert Service
It took me months and months, but I can now finally say that I have read all they way through the poems of Robert Service. And there are a lot of them! 728 pages in this volume, which contains Rhymes of a Red Cross Man, Ballads of a Cheechako, The Spell of the Yukon, Rhymes of a Rolling Stone, Ballads of a Bohemian, and Bar-Room Ballads. The themes are a bit repetitious and the style is way too sing song for my taste. However, these are poems that are easy to memorize and more than a few of them tell an interesting story. I can see why Service has become popular among those who enjoy spinning a good yarn from time to time.

Buried in the middle of the text is a bit of commentary by Service himself with which I have to agree: "I am not fool enough to think I am a poet, but I have a knack of rhyme and I love to make verses. Mine is a tootling, tin-whistle music." (p. 432). This is not the poetry of a sage or of a prophet, but rather the rhymes of a storyteller. It is a bit of tin-whistle tootling, but my-o-my what a lot of tootling it is.

At least I can say I've read all of the Robert Service that I could get my hands on and I won't have to return to his poetry again for a long time.

Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy

John Shelby Spong, Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy (New York: Harper One) 2016.

Spong - Biblical Literalism
Even if one doesn't agree with all of the progressive positions taken by John Shelby Spong, you have to respect his dedication and discipline when it comes to Biblical study. This book is based on years of very careful and intricate study of the Gospel of Matthew. His knowledge of Jewish heritage and the cycle of the Jewish year also come through strongly in his writing. In fact, his deep understanding and years of study almost become a weakness in the text because he relies so heavily on his own knowledge and understanding. It isn't that the book is devoid of footnotes, but there are some places where he makes claims that are not supported by others. That isn't to say that the claims he makes are unbelievable, just that there are a few new ideas in the text that challenge a careful reader. Sometimes it is difficult to obtain independent confirmation of points he makes.

Nonetheless, this is an excellent book with some challenging ideas that requires careful reading and thinking and opens the reader to new ways of understanding the Gospel narratives. His challenge to Biblical literalists is real and his case against applying their techniques to interpretation is strong.

It is often the case when scholarship pushes the limits of my understanding and challenges some of my preconceived notions that my approach is shifted by reading the works of the scholars. It will be true in this case, as well. I'll probably never return to all of my previous understandings of the Gospel of Matthew. And I'll probably keep Spong's book handy for future readings, study and preaching on the text.

Gone in a Heartbeat

Neil Spector, M.D., Gone in a Heartbeat: A Physician's Search for True Healing (Oxford, Mississippi: Triton Press) 2015

Spector - Gone in a Heartbeat
I was drawn to this book because of the incredible story of how Dr. Spector endured a mysterious illness that seemed to defy diagnosis. The result of the illness was severe heart disease that finally could be resolved only by a heart transplant. The book tells the story of his illness, surgeries and other medical trials as he struggled to regain his health.

Interesting and alarming is the story of how Dr. Spector, a highly recognized oncologist, was unsuccessful in getting his doctors to take his symptoms seriously. They kept labeling his troubles as stress, even though there was no evidence that he was not dealing with stress well. Their inability to take their patient seriously kept them from discovering the true nature of his illness. As I read, I kept thinking, "If a doctor can't get his doctors to listen to him, what chance does a layperson have?"

This book should be required reading for physicians in training. His approach to physician/patient relationships is a breath of fresh air in the world of contemporary medicine.

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu

Joshua Hammer, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: and their Race to Save the World's Most Precious Manuscripts (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016.

This is a book that I purchased solely because of the title - or at least because of the title and a review that I heard on NPR. It sounded interesting enough to me that after I heard the title and review, I ordered a copy and had it sent to my son, who is a librarian. I though that the title alone, might make it a book he would enjoy. Like me, he knew veery little about Mali and the recent history of the region, so this nonfiction volume was a real lesson in geography, history and culture for him. He did enjoy it and reported that it is a tale of true adventure. Then, because it is the kind of person he is, he gave the book to me and having the relationship we do, I started to read it the night I received it. It is a really fun read and I, too, found myself immersed in stories of places and people that I did not know well.

We always speak of Timbuktu as remote and isolated and dream of it as palace to visit once in a lifetime, but I don't think I would have been able to locate it on a map, or tell you the name of the country in which it is located, prior to reading this book. The genuine heroism of one man who knew how to enlist others in a very important task resulted in a close call, but the successful defense of countless irreplaceable historic manuscripts from what was nearly certain destruction by Islamic extremists. The adventures reported in the book keep readers engaged and gives a deep sense of the present day on-the-ground reality in Mali.

I don't say this about very many books, even those about which I am enthusiastic, but this book truly is a delight to read.

Truth Speaks to Power

Walter Brueggemann, Truth Speaks to Power: The Countercultural Nature of Scripture (Louisville, Kentucky: John Knox Press) 2013

Brueggemann - Truth Speaks to Power
Several liberation theologians have engaged in New Testament exegesis that speaks of the revolutionary nature of the Gospel. Brueggemann invites readers to dive into the Hebrew Scriptures to discover the messages that directly confront the status quo and those who wield political, economic and social powers not only in the societies of Biblical times, but also those who exercise authority in our time. As is typical of Brueggemann, he skillfully compels readers to look deeper, to abandon a surface reading of the text in favor of a more in-depth analysis. Reading the scriptures in such a manner reveals directly subversive messages that undermine the power and authority of those who exercise it over others.

The Biblical answer to power is truth and the truth is conveyed in the words of Scripture. To discover the truth, however, requires more than an uncritical face-value reading of the sacred texts.

Based on a series of lectures delivered to a conference of the Episcopal Church, this book is easily accessible to lay people and clergy alike and would make an excellent starting point for a Biblical discussion.