MUST READ REVIEWS: Rejoicing in Lament (J. Todd Billings), In God's Hands (Desmond Tutu) AND Ghettoside (Jill Leovy) ON SALE
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Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ J. Todd Billings (Brazos Press) $18.99 In yesterday's BookNotes post I highlighted the eloquent and moving collection of meditations for the dying, written by the exceptional wordsmith and poet Marilyn Chandler McEntyre called A Faithful Farewell (Eerdmans; $15.00) and the feisty and almost fun narrative about having cancer called Fight Back with Joy (Worthy; $15.99) nicely told by the young adult ministry leader and author, Margaret Feinberg. Although Ben Palpant in his extraordinary indie-press release A Small Cup of Light (Ben Palpant; $9.99) was not dying, he did not know that; his was a strange and frightening chronic illness and his telling of it showed exceptionally artful writing. Beloved blogger Kara Tippetts, whose book The Hardest Peace (Cook; $15.99) I celebrated, died yesterday, as we noted. These books are each tender and poignant and each immediately connects with the reader as we are invited into these hard but holy episodes in their lives. (The others we described are about God's distance, about other kinds of loss and grief, or about the paradoxes of faith, not illness or death, A Glorious Dark by A.J. Swoboda, and Aloof by Tony Kirz, and Between the Dark and the Daylight by Sr. Joan Chittister, and these are also exceptionally well written and very, very good.)
Todd Billings, whose new Rejoicing in Lament book can only be described with numerous, glowing superlatives, is not a hip ministry leader or a poet, and does not have an international following on line. But yet, like these other authors, he has chosen to be vulnerable by sharing his deeply personal story, and to do so in a way that is (like the others, like any good memoir) uniquely his own. And what a curious angle he brings to his now very messy life.
Todd Billings, you see, is a theologian. His impressive Th.D. is from Harvard Divinity School and he teaches at the renowned Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. He is ordained as a pastor in the Reformed Church in America but works, rather inconspicuously, I gather, as a scholar and seminary prof.
Professor Billings tells us in the beginning of the book that he was just starting a sabbatical, and was entering his next season of scholarly research, when he got the blood cancer diagnosis. (He has done very important work on Reformed theology, documenting how John Calvin's notions were received, understood, misunderstood, and disseminated in the generations after Calvin's own work, a book on the theology of Scriptural interpretation, and has done an exceptionally rich book called Union with Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church that has been very positively reviewed from many quarters and which we often recommend.) His next research and writing topic was necessarily adjusted upon his severe diagnosis, and he proceeded to write about his own story of illness and of suffering, offering theological reflections about his cancer, live, as it were. (In deed, it was his blow-by-blow reflections, both medical and theological, that he was sharing in a blog that lead friends and colleagues to encourage him to expand those thoughts into a major book.)
Dr. Billings writes,
This book was written during various stages of my cancer treatment process; that process has not ended but continues with chemotherapy as I write this preface now. Some sections of the book were written in the hospital. Other parts were written while I was in quarantine from public places because of a compromised immune system after a stem cell transplant. All of it was written amid the physical and emotional turmoil derived from both my cancer treatments and my new prospects as someone diagnoses with an incurable cancer at the age of thirty-nine.But, yet, this is not only a memoir of a person with serious health issues. Rejoicing in Lament is written by a theologian, after all, and while I suppose he couldn't really help himself, it is his particular vocation to think well about deep stuff, with and for us all. He talks about his project by showing "the way in which I intertwine my cancer story with the exploration of a much weightier story - the story of God's saving action in and through Jesus Christ."
And for a guy like Billings, this implies a whole, whole lot, beautifully considered, carefully explored, and passionately articulated. I sometimes call this sort of effort "practical theology" or "theological spirituality" -- a hybrid genre, serious, systematic, but written for the people of God, fresh theological ponderings applied to daily life, not only for the academy or guild of professional scholars. Add to this practical, pastoral flavor, that it was written in the very human place of suffering and fear of dying -- literally some of it composed in the hospital! -- and you can see that this isn't your typical theology text.
After my diagnosis, I prayerfully immersed myself in Scripture, especially the Psalms. New biblical and theological questions were becoming urgent. Since my diagnosis took place in the middle of a sabbatical semester of research and writing, I had the time and space to turn my attention to biblical and theological works that pursue these questions as I began chemotherapy... I wrote this book for others but also as a part of my own process of coming before the presence of God in my new life after the diagnosis. I decided to honestly take on the tough theological and existential questions rather than dodge them. They are the questions that I live with. And frequently, they are the questions that other Christians who have experienced loss live with as well. There is an urgency underlying this book that is analogous to one that many reviewers experienced in the 2013 movie Gravity. Dr. Ryan Stone in desperate conditions says it this way: "I know we're all gonna die. But I'm gonna die today."He continues sharing a bit about what it means to do theology when "my hopes toward the future cannot be what they used to be." Whew.
This is a loss not just for me but for my family, for my friends, for my community of faith. How does this sudden loss, which sinks in gradually, relate to the abundant life we enjoy in Christ? Does Scripture give us the "answer" to our pressing questions about why this is happening, or does God give us something different - even better - than that through Scripture? How do the psalms of lament, the book of Job, and the New Testament witness to Jesus Christ and life in him testify to the loving power of the Triune God? The most potent questions, when one pushes deeply enough, are ultimately not about our experience but about the story of God made known in Jesus Christ.Not all of us say things like this; some of us don't even read things like this (or hear such theologically substantive phrases from our pastors or preachers.) I'd invite you to revisit those last lines to be clear what Billings is saying. He is telling us that he is going to develop this book, using the psalms of lament and other portions of Scripture that address human loss and grief, and see how they -- comfort us? Give us courage? No, that is not what he says. He will show how they witness to Jesus Christ and his redemptive work in the world, the world made and held by the Triune God of the Bible.
I sought to give a window into my life as a newly diagnosed cancer patient as a step along a larger path of faith seeking understanding, a disciple joining with others to follow Jesus Christ. I do develop a set of biblical and theological arguments related to praying the Psalms, providence, and life in Christ as chapter builds on chapter in the book. But I do so as a way that relates my cancer story to the story of God's promise and ongoing action in Christ, by the Spirit.As Billings puts it, he is writing Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ not only for scholars and students (although there are great footnotes providing hints for those who want to explore the more academic issues these concerns raise) but for -- get this! -- "inquiring Christians who struggle with questions about how the Triune God's story in Scripture could possible relate to their calamities of cancer or other trials that seem to leave us in a fog, in lament, and in confusion about God's deliverance." The book is dedicated to those who "cry out to the Lord amidst the fog."
Has that ever been you? Anyone you know?
I suggested that Dr. Billings is not a poet, like the splendid Ben Palpant whose book title comes from a Billy Collins poem, or isn't a practiced literary writer, like Marilyn Chandler McIntyre. I am not sure if he is known as a captivating, audacious storyteller like Tony (the Beat Poet) Kirz or the exceptionally clever AJ Swoboda. But, please know, this book is very well written, not only as he offers exceptionally clear and cogent arguments about the nature of prayer or God's intervention in the world, or the implications of our convictions of God's restoring work in the world, or how the doctrine of the Trinity is important in our suffering, but also in his great gift of being allusive and artful in how he gets it all said. Not every scholar, even under such poignant and gut-wrenching circumstances, can craft lines like appear in this fine work.
One chapter title is called "Walking in the Fog: A Narrowed Future or a Spacious Place?" Another is called "Joining the Resistance: Lament and Compassionate Witness to the Present and Future King." Yet another is called "The Light of Perfect Love in the Darkness." (Ha - let that sink in!) You can see he is exploring some deep stuff, and he has a good eye for a good phrase.
In the hands of a bombastic fundamentalist or one without much nuance or graciousness, some of this may seem a bit heavy handed. But yet, there it is, one of the truest truths: "I Am Not My Own" which is the first part of a chapter called "Our Story Incorporated into Christ's." Perhaps in our hyper-individualized, consumer culture, we want to be our own, to own our own self. Could this declaration - we belong to somebody else, "body and soul" as the Billings's beloved Heidelberg Catechism puts it - be good news? Perhaps it is even subversive.
This book of serious Biblical and theological exploration also unfolds like any good memoir. There are stories that are shocking, stories of prayer meetings, stuff at work, hospital crises, family affairs. He has riveting excerpts of his personal journals offered as sidebars and pull quotes, making the book nearly multi-dimensional. It is a good, good read, if a bit demanding at times, and I cannot say enough about it for thoughtful readers.
Gerald Sittser says, "Rejoicing in Lament is a profound witness to the gospel. I can hardly find words to express its intelligence, honesty, and richness."
Other endorsements on the back come from a variety of corners of the theological world: Kathryn Greene-McCreight of the Episcopal Church at Yale, Cornelius Plantinga of Calvin Seminary, Marianne Meye Thompson of Fuller, and Carl Trueman of WTS.
Michael Horton says,
Every chapter brims with pools of insight, pointing us beyond platitudes to the God who has met us -and keeps on meeting us - in the Suffering and Risen Servant. This is a book not just for reading but for meditation and prayer.
Certainly Lent is a proper time suitable for asking how our own human stories of joy and grief can be incorporated into the larger Biblical story. But it is, of course, essential for all of us, any time, to do some of this kind of work. I hope you get this book soon, reading it as a guide for your own struggles, or - if you are fortunate enough to not yet have had too many harsh waves surging over you - to read now while you can, to build a foundation for how best to cope, when that time comes. Rejoicing in Lament will offer very much for your life of discipleship and hopefully - as the publisher promises - point you to "a joyful entry into life amid loss."
HERE is a youtube video trailer for the book, a nice explanation from Dr. Billings.
In God's Hands Desmond Tutu (Bloomsbury) $23.00 I hope you know that every year the Archbishop of Canterbury suggests a book to read during Lent. It may be (given the world-wide nature of the Anglican communion) one of the most popular "book club" reads of which we know. We usually carry this Archbishop's Select (which makes it sound like a fine wine) and we were especially glad this year that the 2015 selection was a brand new one by Desmond Tutu.
The Revered Doctor Tutu is, of course, a South African Anglican priest, an exceptionally admirable person, an internationally recognized leader of the struggle for peace and justice, one who has written widely about (and served boldly promoting) public policies and social initiatives of reconciliation and forgiveness. He won the Noble Peace Prize in 1984 for some of this kind of work. Tutu has spoken out passionately about human rights and social justice but he has also created moving prayer books and a delightful collection of children's Bible stories called Children of God Storybook Bible (Zondervan; $18.99) and a great creation-story picture book, illustrated by Nancy Tillman, called Let There Be Light (Zondervan; $16.99.) His most recent book, co-written in 2014 with his daughter, Mpho Tutu (who lives in the US and is also a priest) is a fine book called The Book of Forgiving The Four-Fold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World (HarperOne; $25.99) and that would itself make a wonderful Lenten read for the next week or so.
Much of what has influenced Tutu over his many years of public service is his unshakable conviction that humans are made in God's image, and so, are created with dignity and worth. (This comes through in a beautiful way in his children's Bible, by the way, and especially in Let There Be Light, where the children are crowned with light as they live in the good creation, bearing God's own regal stamp!) "Each one of us is a God-carrier, a tabernacle, a sanctuary of the Divine Trinity," he says. What are the implications of being the beloved of God?
Tutu writes, sounding themes with language that is dear to many of us,
And humans were given dominion over all of creation. That is why we were created: to be God's viceroys, to be God's stand-ins. We should love, we should bear rule over the rest of creation as God would. We are meant to be caring in how we deal with the rest of God's creation. God wants everything to flourish.
After some clear preaching about the degradation the created order is now facing, he nearly sings the truth:
For us, who hold the Bible to be central to our faith, these are issues that should not be peripheral, or the concern of people who are regarded as a bit peculiar. These are the issues that are made central to our lives because the Bible is central to our lives - or it should be.I don't know if African Anglicans shout out "Amen!" but right here, I wanna ask - do I hear an Amen?
After a foreword by the Archbishop of Canterbury, we have six chapters in Part One of In God's Hands:
· The Subversiveness of the Bible
· We are Created for Complementarity, for Togetherness, for Family
· The Biased God
· You Are Loved
· It's All of Grace
· In the Beginning, God; At the End, God
The second part is an extended discussion with the author, an interview in which he delightfully talks about his younger days, his spiritual influences (including the great Trevor Huddleston) his boyhood bout with TB, his reading Cry the Beloved Country, the anti-apartheid movement and his life today. It is all very interesting, leaving me wanting more. I guess I might revisit his big, authorized biography, Tutu.
(And I love his acknowledgments to some assistants who helped work on the book. "Poor dears, my hieroglyphics must have driven them round the bend." Ha.)
Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in American Jill Leovy (Spiegel & Grau) $28.00 I have written in the last BookNotes column that Lent is a time to be honest about the brokenness of our world, lamenting our own complicity in sin and attending to our own pain and sorrows. The Bible authorizes this among us, and healthy piety and spiritual practices always allow us to be more honest, more authentic, not less. Perhaps it isn't wise to always "air dirty laundry" as the elders among us used to put it, and maybe we need not wallow in our own miseries, such as they are. But, again, at least in this season of the church year, we follow Christ towards his own great passions, and are fortified to take up the sadnesses of our lives, and the sacrifices of our own callings
One of the Via Dolorosas of our time - and certainly one some of us have walked down this last year - has been harsh, inner city streets; we recognize the growing awareness about racial inequities in our criminal justice systems and many confusions about race and racial animosities in our land. There is tension on the streets, and tensions in the blogosphere and among friends who see these things very differently.
We have promoted books about multi-ethnic ministry and racial reconciliation since the day our bookstore opened, and we continue to want to point our customers and supporters to important books in this field, confident that it is as needed now as ever.
(Last year we named as one of the most important books of 2014 the stunning, exceptionally informative and deeply moving Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by a young hero of ours, Bryan Stevenson (Spiegel & Grau; $28.00.) Also, we promoted often the collection of essays inviting the church to public repentance, a book I even read in manuscript form, to offer an endorsing blurb, called Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith edited by Lisa Harper and others (Zondervan; $22.99.) Either would make an excellent read over the next week or so and we commend them both.)
Yes, these would be good to read as we walk this road the next week or so. So would Ghettoside, a very new book that I am highlighting here, now. I don't know, but it just might be the book God wants you to read during Holy Week. Not at all religious or spiritual on the face of it, Ghettoside: A True Story of a Murder... allows us to get a detailed glimpse of the behind the scenes story of racially-charged crime in America. And what a glimpse Ms Leovy provides! Oh, my.
One reviewer, Michael Connelly, says,
Ghettoside is fantastic. It does what the best narrative nonfiction does: it transcends its subject by taking one person's journey and making it all of our journeys. That's what makes this not just a gritty-heart-wrenching, and telling book, but an important one. From the patrol cop to the president, everyone needs to read this book.The acclaimed writer Martin Amis says,
Jill Leovy writes with exceptional sharpness and tautness, and her pages glow and glitter with the found poetry of the street. This book will take an honored place on the shelf that includes David Simon's classic Homicide and Michelle Alexander's explosive study of mass incarceration, The New Jim Crow.David Baume, author of the bestselling book about New Orleans, Nine Lives, says it is "A thoroughly engrossing true life policier full of vivid and sympathetic characters," which is a great endorsement, I'd say, but then he simple says this: "but also the bravest book about race and crime I've ever read."
More and more, the endorsements have raved. The prestigious Publishers Weekly gave it a coveted starred review, saying "Absorbing... Readers may come for Leovy's detective story; they will stay for her lucid social critique."
Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy is a detailed true crime investigation that has been applauded by folks from a variety of quarters, police and anti-racism organizations, policy wonks and street level activists. It has been endorsed by reviewers from both the cultural left and right, so to speak. It was, in fact, this widespread appreciation for it that first attracted me to it; I wondered how this book might be used to bridge some of the harsh divides that have appeared particularly since the rulings on Ferguson, etc. It is gritty and it is compelling, literary journalism at its best.
Want to walk down that urban road, perhaps a Jericho Road where you are called to understand and show empathy and care? Perhaps it will be a road to Jerusalem, where there is trouble and danger, a world of unjust arrests and trumped up trials? Or, perhaps reading might take you to the Calvary Road, leading to that place of the skull, Golgotha, where we see self-sacrificial suffering? This amazing and gripping book will help us understand how homicide investigations work especially in our troubled urban centers, how those stuck in poverty in places like South Los Angeles experience life. If we want to contribute to the on-going debates -- the sort raised so beautifully and faithfully by Lisa Sharon Harper and her co-authors in Forgive Us, or in Stevenson's heroic Just Mercy -- this kind of true story could help us understand the complexities of urban life, at least, and especially about what some call "black on black" crime, what some tell us is a forgotten sub-culture, those who are the victims of "ghettoside" killings.
Here is a two minute clip of her talking with Tavis Smiley. It's provocative.
I don't know how all this will work for you, but it seems that entering into these kinds of specific scenarios for a time might allow us to understand our world a bit more, holding its hurts somehow even as our own, and maybe becoming more reliable interpreters of how injustice works and how things might be reformed. Maybe books like this will help us on the way, even now, during Lent.
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