Beyond Secular Order: The Representation of Being and the Representation of the People by John Milbank
(Wiley-Blackwell, 2014, 298 pages)
In 1990 John Milbank published Theology and Social Theory, a book which made the bold claim, “Once, there was not ‘secular’.” He argued that what has come to be thought of as the “secular realm,” as it has developed in the West, is not really a sphere free of religious commitments, but rather, a turning away from a Christian view of the universe toward “heretical” or “pagan” religious commitments. In Beyond Secular Order, the long-awaited follow-up, Milbank details this turn from a predominantly Christian ontology to a supposedly objective and scientific view of modernity.
He locates this turn within certain trends in late medieval theology. The book is divided into two “sequences.” The first, “Sequence on Modern Ontology,” charts this development, while the second “Sequence on Political Ontology,” articulates how this ontological turn has influenced modern democratic politics. Milbank’s arguments are impressive and wide-ranging. While his discussions of the nuances of medieval ontology can seem esoteric, the pay-off in his discussion of modern political theory is very much concerned with practical elements of political life. Milbank ends up advocating a form of Christian socialism which seeks to retain the best elements of modern progressive politics while recapturing a more medieval integration of religious and social life.
Milbanks claims are controversial (among secular and religious thinkers alike), but his knowledge of medieval and modern thought is daunting and his arguments undeniably brilliant. Much of this is still discussed at the level of theory, but the planned follow up, On Divine Government, should flesh out more specifics of his political vision. Milbank is an essential voice in contemporary discussions of the relationship of faith and politics.
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
(Vintage, 1992, 128 pages)
This book brings together two essays written by James Baldwin in the early 1960’s. The first, “My Dungeon Shook” is in the form of a letter written to his nephew in which Baldwin expresses the necessity of love to overcome the subjugation of one race by another. The second, “Down at the Cross,” is largely an autobiographical account of Baldwin’s childhood in Harlem, his conversion and subsequent disillusionment with the church, and an evening spent with the black Muslim leader Elijah Muhammad. These essays informed and fueled the civil rights movement.
Baldwin, writing in the early sixties, discusses racial oppression with an anger tempered by love. He is excruciatingly honest about the abuse and the resulting sense of inferiority experienced by black Americans. Given this experience, Baldwin can look at different experiences within the black community – seeking the shelter of the church, the militant turn of black Muslims – and fully understand the conditions that facilitate responses of escapism and violence. However, he does not settle for the exchange of one form of oppression for another. In response to white racism, Baldwin calls for transformative love: “And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it” (9-10).
The prophetic nature of Baldwin’s call to “end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world” (105), clearly found a partial fulfillment in the civil rights movement. As racial tension continues to divide our country, it is equally clear that Baldwin’s warnings and exhortations are needed today more than ever.
It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini
(Miramax Books/Hyperion Books for Children, 2006, 444 pages)
This was the final title up for discussion in SCC’s Between the Covers book club. Our main character is Craig – a 15 year old who is battling depression. He tries to manage things as best he can but he has issues sleeping, eating, and basically making it through the day. Things get so bad he decides he wants to commit suicide. That’s when he finds himself checking in to a hospital and spending some time in an adult psychiatric ward.
This book takes a very serious issue and makes it accessible for young adults. It’s based on the personal experience of the author which helps you appreciate the story on a different level and understand some of the logic behind writing the book in the first place. This wasn’t necessarily a book I loved, but I can understand the appeal and I’m glad I had the opportunity to pick it up.
I can’t wait for Book Club to pick back up in August 2015!
The Rev Diaries by Adam Smallbone
(Michael Joseph, 2014, 400 pages)
Rev., the BBC2 sitcom starring Tom Hollander, is one of my favorite shows on TV. I’ve been looking forward to reading this tie-in novel for a while, and it did not disappoint. It chronicles the ministry of Reverend Adam Smallbone, a Church of England priest who has recently moved from a quiet country parish to an inner-city church in London. Adam’s tiny congregation consists of hilarious characters who are constant sources of frustration. The pressures of fundraising, maintaining a crumbling building, dealing with duplicitous parishioners and meddling church bureaucrats, and the strain that all these things place on his marriage cause Adam to question his vocation. The book runs the course of the church calendar, starting with Adam’s meltdown at his first midnight mass, chronicling his humiliation on national television during Lent, and ending in the doldrums of ordinary time.
While Adam Smallbone is listed as the book’s author, it is in fact written by the novelist Jon Canter. More accurately, Canter has adapted the television screenplays written by Tom Hollander and James Woods – so the layers of authorship are several deep. Canter does an excellent job shaping the material from the show to form a coherent and hilarious novel. I’ve read a couple of his novels in the past, and this one displays the same dry sense of humor that I’ve enjoyed in his previous work. Much of the dialogue is taken directly from the show, but Cantor summarizes situations and conversations after the fact in Adam’s voice. This approach enhances the humor of the show and makes it a truly comedic novel in its own right, rather than a simple promotional tie-in to the TV show.
Race Matters by Cornel West
(Beacon Press, 1993, 105 pages)
I picked up Race Matters after reading Michael Eric Dyson’s recent essay on Cornel West in the New Republic. Dyson is extremely critical of West and the books he has produced in recent years. However, he points to Race Matters as the most important of West’s books. It is hard to image another book on current affairs that remains as relevant over twenty years since its publication. The introduction begins with an allusion to the Los Angeles riots of 1992. West claims that while race was the “visible catalyst” for these riots, they were more broadly “the consequence of a lethal linkage of economic decline, cultural decay, and political lethargy in American life” (1). Many of the same issues are at play in Ferguson or any of the other cities around the country that are experiencing (ostensibly) racial conflict.
For West, discussions of America’s history of racism and of the current “predicaments of black people,” are issues of the public good, not the problems of a particular group of people. Love is the foundation of his social vision; it is the precondition for the flourishing of public life, whether we are talking about race relations or public infrastructure. As West states it, “The vitality of any public square ultimately depends on how much we care about the quality of our lives together” (6). This basic concern runs through the diverse concerns that are dealt with in the book. West discusses black conservatism, affirmative action, the legacy of Malcolm X, and a number of other subjects pertaining to race and public life.
Some of the chapters definitely show their age. The Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings are a frequent point of reference, and West’s discussion of the “crisis of black leadership” very much pertains to the political and academic landscape of the early 1990s. However, the number of such cultural landmarks that could simply be exchanged for more contemporary examples is alarming. Even where the references are dated, the basic issues remain pressing. West’s overarching concern is the condition of “nihilism” in black America. This is a condition that is tied up with historical and structural racism, yet eschews simplistic analysis from both right and left. Once again, West’s themes of love and mutual concern come through: “Nihilism is not overcome by arguments or analyses; it is tamed by love and care” (19). As race continues to play an increasingly important and contentious role in our public life, it is hard to imagine a better stance from which to work.
Watch My Baby Grow by DK Publishing
(DK Publishing, 2014, 224 pages)
As a new parent I’ve recently started keeping more of an eye out for books that focus on child development and what to expect the first year. Watch My Baby Grow seemed like it could be beneficial because DK Publishing has a knack for publishing titles that present information in a clear, easy-to-digest way.
Watch My Baby Grow follows the progression of baby Melisa over the course of a year. Photographs are taken to show how she is changing and information is provided to explain what is going on developmentally and what sorts of things you can expect to see happen around the same time frame.
This isn’t an in-depth resource, but if you’re a visual learner and just want to supplement your other parenting resources you might pick this up from the library.
Foxcatcher: The True Story of My Brother’s Murder, John du Pont’s Madness, and the Quest for Olympic Gold
by Mark Schultz with David Thomas
(Dutton, 2014, 320 pages)
After watching the movie Foxcatcher (2014) from director Bennett Miller, I immediately wanted to know more about the stories of the Schultz brothers and John du Pont. The movie is strange, sparse, and tense. The book, while it covers the bizarre events that played out on John du Pont’s Foxcatcher Farm, is primarily about Mark Schultz’s wrestling career. He talks about growing up with his brother Dave, getting a late start in high school wrestling, the details of his college and Olympic career, and training with the team that du Pont put together and tyrannically ruled over.
While the movie portrays the period when Mark lived on du Pont’s estate, this is only an episode – if a central one – in the book. The book reveals the significant liberties that were taken in the film, both with chronology and with facts. However, I think the film zeroed in on the most interesting aspects of Schultz’s account. It effectively portrayed the invasive and dangerous environment created on the estate by and isolated and delusional millionaire. If you’ve seen and enjoyed the movie, the book is worth reading for its first-hand accounts of du Pont’s treacherous eccentricity.