Saturday, October 30, 2010

Book Review: Vestments by John Reimringer

Once in a while a book crosses my desk and I say, "Wow, I HAVE TO READ THIS BOOK!"

Vestments by John Reimringer (Milkweed, 2010) is a must read for pastors and clergy serving in parishes (yours truly) or seminarians who are currently in ministry formation, or for anyone remotely interested in Christian spirituality. This is not a "feel good" book but a work which takes you to the depths of hell and despair and back again. It is a book that shows the reader that life, especially the spiritual journey, is not so neat and tidy but quite messy and raw. The reader encounters such moral questions as the place of celibacy and sex in ministry, abortion and the problems surrounding it, the role and place of family, and the ups and downs of friendship. Reading Vestments reminded me of the work of Elizabeth Strout, Andre Dubus, and Raymond Carver, authors who show the grittiness of life without glossing it over.

The cover art, reminiscent of a stained glass window at Church, is very attractive. The cover includes several lower income houses at the crack of dawn with smoke billowing from their chimneys but the artist has covered that image with a luminescent purple and mauve, as if you were looking through a stained glass window. The artwork is a nice touch because the book invites us into the lives of two young men who are in seminary formation and who will live the rest of their life, perhaps, in a parish setting.

I do not want to give away the story line, but suffice it to say we meet a very dysfunctional family, the father is a high school dropout, functional drunk, and who is both verbally and physically abuse to his former wife and children. His son, the main character, enters a Roman Catholic seminary. During this time we see him in action, learning theology but also dealing with celibacy and the major vows which he will undertake. He struggles not only with his future ministry in the Church but with his messed up family. I have met many families in my life but none as colorful as his family! They would be a case study for any pastoral counselor!

We also see his friend who is someone whom all too often I have seen in ecclesial settings as well, the "professional pastor" the one who envisions ministry as a profession and career. In many ways he is under the temptation of power and authority, having little trouble keeping his vows yet breaking them with his secret lover, his live in girlfriend who also is the local barmaid.

John Reimringer is a master storyteller, he weaves this book like a master weaver. Characters are neither all good or all bad, neither all darkness nor all light. Everyone has warts and wrinkles and also light and goodness. As a reader I was mad, I wanted the bad characters to "get their due" yet Mr. Reimringer doesn't allow that. His story, like the Bible, shows us life and humanity through the lens of how God might envision it, not as we do.

While searching online about Mr. Reimringer I learned that it took him nearly ten years to write Vestments. I hope his next book doesn't take that long, this is one reader who is hooked on Reimringer's prose.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Book Review Jesus Wars by Philip Jenkins

I have been catching up on my book reviews so here is another installment this week which should be the last one for a while. I was getting a bit back logged in Sept!!

Every Sunday Christians attend worship. They pray to God, invoke the name of Jesus, offer their praise and prayer, and many break the bread of the Eucharist which is often referred to as the Last Supper. However, I bet most Christians do not have the foggiest idea that Christians long ago actually fought about who Jesus was. Yes, you heard correctly. There were debates, divisions, political wars, and blood spilled over the nature of Jesus and his ministry.

If you want to learn more about this intriguing part of Church History than look no further than Philip Jenkin's latest book, Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 Years (Harper One, 2010).

Jenkins is a full time professor at Penn State University and the author of numerous books on Christian history and culture. His writings and essays have also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New Republic, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe.

Jesus Wars is written with a historians eye for detail and in the vein of a good story, after all, Church history is filled with intrigue, wars, debates, and arguments. Jenkins offers his readers insight into the history that led up to the great Jesus debates of the fourth can fifth century, namely: Nicea, Ephesus, and Chalcedon. The book is woven around the basic theme which opens the book, a phrase from the gospels as Jesus asks his disciples, "Who do you say that I am?"Was Jesus just a human being who had a divine vocation? Was he a "super human" with super natural powers? Was he solely divine who appeared to be human? Who was this Jesus anyway?

Since Jenkins is a Church historian his many years of teaching students provides him with the many questions that people have on their minds. He has a fine writing style and like a good teacher you feel like he is talking right to you, a trait which I wish all writers had!!

However, while reading Jesus Wars I kept asking myself, so what? Much of what Jenkins offers is already located in various Church history books. I didn't find much new in this book, other than the fact that Jenkins brings ancient texts to new light. Perhaps this is why Jesus Wars is so important, not for the fact that Jenkins is offering some new theories or ideas about Jesus but that he sheds light on the ancient Jesus debates and the various fights between bishops and emperors and between countries and nations.

When I finished this book I realized that the Jesus debates have not stopped, they are as fresh as ever. Christians across the globe are still arguing and fighting for the "correct" understanding of Jesus.

The statement that Jenkins uses to open the book is asked of us today, "who do you say that I am?"

What would you answer?

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Book Review: The Complete Psalms by Pamela Greenberg

My bookshelves are filled with all types of books: fiction and non-fiction, hardcover and paperback, history, literature, culture, and art. Because I am both a pastor and an instructor in Scripture I have several shelves reserved for theological tomes, especially different translations of the Bible. I generally use the Revised Standard Version for daily devotion and sermon preparation, it is a translation that I grew up with and also used in seminary and in graduate school. However I also have other translations which I consult frequently: The Message, New Jerusalem Bible, as well as the New International Version and sometimes the King James Bible. I always encourage my students to use a variety of Bibles when reading and studying Scripture since they will most certainly find different nuances of words, concepts, and sentences. Every year publishers release new Bible translations and hosts of "Study Bibles." Among the latest publications dealing with an entire book of the Bible is Pamela Greenberg's The Complete Psalms: The Book of Prayer Songs in a New Translation published by Bloomsbury.

This fine hardcover edition is beautiful. The cover reminds me of my grandmother's old leather bound King James Bibles that she used often. The book also includes a red ribbon which serves as ready made book mark. This volume is one which readers will turn to again and again as they read and re-read the Book of Psalms.

Why a new translation? After all there are hundreds of Bible translations available in local bookstores and online. However Ms. Greenberg reminds her readers that the Psalms were written in Hebrew and very often the translations can be wooden and life-less, others perhaps less so. Mary Karr, the famous memoirist and poetry teacher at Syracuse University, says that Greenberg, "has lifted the old language from spider webs and mothballs, breathing new air into the songs." (from the front cover). I agree. Greenberg provides readers with a fresh translations, offering a new and refreshing insight into these ancient words.

When I read the Psalms I generally use the RSV translation, a translation which I am very familiar. The problem however is that since I know many of the Psalms already I tend to read very quickly, skipping over words or rushing through them. However, when reading Greenberg's new translation I caught myself reading slowly, meandering through the Psalms of David line by line taking in each and every word. I could not skip lines or read fast, this translation makes you savor each word as it should be savored. After all, the Psalms have been called the Prayerbook of the Church and for centuries both Christians and Jews have used the Psalms in their daily and weekly prayers.

Greenberg must be thanked for her hard work and dedication trying to capture the beauty of a very old language. I used The Complete Psalms for my lectio divina and I encourage you to do the same.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Book Review The Greatest Prayer by John Dominic Crossan

The Lord's Prayer is the only prayer that we have from Jesus himself and every Sunday millions of Christians throughout the world either read, sing, or recite this wonderful little prayer. Very often we recite this prayer not giving too much attention to what we are actually saying. When was the last time you really ever thought of "hallowed be Thy name" or "lead us not into temptation"?

Well, if you are interested in learning more about the Lord's Prayer in an easy to read friendly volume then look no further. Harper One has recently published John Dominic Crossan's new book, The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord's Prayer.

This is a book that I will keep on my bookshelf near the other books that I would like to re-read in the near future. Crossan certainly has a friendly conversational style of writing. He is a notable lecturer and teacher and his tone and style reflect that. I felt like Crossan was sitting in the room giving me a tour of the Bible and how the Lord's Prayer fits into the Christian Spiritual tradition.

The book is rather short, it includes 8 chapters devoted to each of the stanza's of the prayer. Crossan is a prolific writer and this book is a culmination of his other "Jesus" type books such as The Historical Jesus or The Birth of Earl Christianity or his latest book co-authored with his longtime friend and colleague Marcus Borg called The First Paul.

Crossan looks at the Lord's Prayer through the lens of the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible), especially looking at its connection to the prophets. The prophetic movement forced the aristocracy and kingly rulers to deal with important "kingdom" issues such as poverty, homelessness, lack of food, war, famine, and other social concerns. If you take some time and turn to any of the prophets (Amos or Hosea) for example you will see many examples of this common call to repentance. The prophets saw the rich getting richer on the backs of the poor and their lack of care for the needy neighbor.

Jesus entered into this prophetic movement as not just any prophet, but the Son of God who is the Prophetic Word incarnate so to speak. Jesus actualizes this common call to repentance and care for the poor. Crossan suggests that the Lord's Prayer is not some "spiritualization" but a radical call to change ones vision of the world. Crossan states numerous times that we are co-workers with God and collaborate with God in the creation of the kingdom of God in the here and now. Our calling as God's disciples is to be radical as Jesus, and that is a high calling indeed.

Of course there is much more to this book. I suggest that you buy it and read it for yourself. Perhaps you can use it for your next book club reading? Or maybe your parish adult education class will read it?

I plan to re-read this book again and again, finding pearls of wisdom in this wonderful little ancient prayer.