BOOK REVIEW: “Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist”

Like most historical figures of the early 19th century, Hannah More is not someone I thought I would be bringing up in casual conversation. That changed soon after I started reading Karen Swallow Prior’s biography of this remarkable author, educational leader and slave-trade abolitionist.

I had heard positive buzz about how “Fierce Convictions” was a quality book, researched with academic rigor yet presented in engaging prose. However, as my interests do not include Victorian-era England, a biography about the so-called “first Victorian” Hannah More wasn’t likely to wind up on my to-read list. What eventually pushed me to grab the book for myself was when I registered for an intensive course on Christian Education and Formation at North Park Theological Seminary, and one of the pre-reading requirements was “a biography on someone who made an educative/formative impact on society.”

In terms of fulfilling that course requirement, Fierce Convictions succeeded. To offer a snapshot of what can be found in the book about education: as a child, More had a unique educational journey, living in a time when views towards female education were impoverished but nonetheless having the fortunate advantage of being raised in a family of educators. More grew up to be a educator herself with an approach to teaching that perhaps is as refreshing today as it was back then, an approach exemplified by her warning to fellow educators: “Do not fancy that a thing is good merely because it is dull” (p. 27). Yet, More’s greatest legacy within education was perhaps the numerous “Sunday schools” she established with her sister Patty. These schools brought in thousands of poor children who simply wanted to be literate, Sunday being the only day the kids had off from farming or other labor.

However, More was not just a leader in education. Within London high culture and beyond, she made a name for herself as a playwright, poet and author. For the uninitiated, Prior does a great job of explaining how More’s various works fit within More’s life and English society. My interest in More was piqued to the point of wanting…well, more More. For those of us interested in further reading, perhaps the only thing lacking here was an annotated bibliography that mapped out which of More’s works are actually timeless and which are better left for the scholars.

What has got me talking about More the most was her moderate-yet-effective politics. For example, she used her celebrity to play a major role in the abolitionist movement commonly associated with the evangelical parliamentarian William Wilberforce. More never quite identified as evangelical and remained committed to the established Church of England, and in so doing proved that ideological purity is not prerequisite for making a positive impact in society. The 21st century reader will rightfully disagree with More on a number of her sensibilities that were shy-of-progressive, such as the role of women in society or her beliefs towards class (and in these cases, Prior does a good job explaining More without excusing More). Nonetheless, the Hannah More portrayed in Fierce Convictions exemplifies the sort of bridge-builder and pragmatic leader who we could use more of in our world today.

Chapter 12, “Burdened for the Beasts”, outlines More’s concern for animals subjected to cruelty. It is unclear why there is an entire chapter dedicated to this topic (as Prior admits, “animal welfare was never a central focus of [More’s] work” p.195). Despite the importance of the issue both then and today, readers in a time crunch can pass over this chapter without interrupting the narrative flow of the biography.

With that caveat, I can sincerely recommend the whole of Fierce Convictions — not only as an enjoyable read, but as what appears to be a well-researched portrayal of a historical figure who certainly deserves more fanfare than we have given her.

Review cross-posted on Amazon.com.

Update: Dr. Prior called me out on my one point of critique. I’ll let her have the last word here.

Advertisements
BOOK REVIEW: “Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist”

BOOK REVIEW: “What Can We Do?: Practical Ways Your Youth Ministry Can Have a Global Conscience”

51tLSKtnqNLI purchased “What Can We Do? Practical Ways Your Youth Ministry Can Have a Global Conscience” out of a sustained interest in the intersection of religion and public life (professionally, I split my time as the youth minister of an evangelical church on the north side of Chicago and also as the communications assistant for a movement of faith-based climate change activists). I was pleased to see the authors, David Livermore and Terry Linhart, write what I believe to a sorely-needed resource: a practical guide for youth groups aspiring to “change the world” beyond short-term mission trips and polarizing politics.

The meat of the book are 9 chapters on various contemporary issues — such as poverty, human trafficking, and the environment. Each chapter concludes with a list of practical ways a youth group could faithfully respond. These issue-based chapters are sandwiched by short reflections on global awareness and “glocal” service for Christian teenagers. At 167 pages, the book is purposefully concise; readers interested in delving deeper into a particular subject should take advantage of the “Resources” section at the end of each chapter.

I majored in global studies & conflict transformation for undergrad, so most of the issues discussed in this book I had already studied in-depth. Rather than new knowledge, the value of the book for me was seeing complex issues distilled into their most important points relative to youth ministry (I sometimes forget teenagers don’t need every piece of information floating around in my head before they can carry the pain of the world in their hearts). As someone actively engaged in youth ministry with an eye toward doing justice, there were times I found the book encouraging — for example, I was recently feeling disappointed about how a particular outreach program wasn’t bringing in the sort of numbers one would expect, when I was reminded that we don’t do it just for the numbers but because “youth groups who emphasize outreach have higher levels of social and ethnic diversity in their groups” (p. 109).

One important critique: when Dave and Terry discuss climate change, they sheepishly say “we…don’t believe global warming and climate change are certainties” (p. 83). By framing the issue in this way, the authors mistakenly assume climate uncertainty is a question of reality rather than severity. By suggesting that Christians should “continue to probe the science on this” (p. 84), the authors convey an irresponsible lack of urgency and miss a valuable opportunity to invite youth pastors to help students understand how the media and other cultural forces shape how scientific fact is interpreted.

Although I have not yet had an opportunity to use this book with students, I think it’d make a satisfactory small group guide for any youth mission leadership team. Besides being a good read for all youth ministers to get up to date on important global issues, it also serves as a helpful reference book for the office bookshelf — although, given the nature of our rapidly changing world, there might be need for a 2nd edition sometime in the next 10 – 15 years.

(Another good book to add to the same office bookshelf would be Mae Elise Cannon’s Social Justice Handbook: Small Steps for a Better World, a more encyclopedic and comprehensive discussion of contemporary issues, written for Christians of all ages.)

Review cross-posted on Amazon.com.

BOOK REVIEW: “What Can We Do?: Practical Ways Your Youth Ministry Can Have a Global Conscience”

Freeing the Bible from bird cages

I haven’t been publishing much on this blog recently. Many reasons for that, one of which is that I’ve been in a season where the desire to read > the desire to write. Here’s a review, cross-posted from Amazon.com, of one of the books I recently completed.

Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible by Debbie Blue

Admittedly, I got this book to fulfill a somewhat goofy curiosity. I work as the youth minister for an evangelical church in Chicago’s Ravenswood neighborhood. As part of a desire to give my students some sort of group identity, I have been using the images of a raven (see what I did there?). When I saw that the final chapter of Blue’s book would be devoted entirely to the raven, I could not help but buy the book, hoping to see if there was any biblical significance to this symbol I had already been using.

I restrained myself from skipping to the end, reading the whole book one bird (one chapter) at a time. Each of the ten chapters could stand on their own as a self-contained read, although there are also some obvious bird pairs (pigeon-dove and raven, vulture and eagle, cock and hen). The chapters could best be described as “meditations” on each bird, composed almost entirely of the seemingly irrelevant tangents stereotypically associated with liberal arts professors, but masterfully arranged into a sort of full circle under Blue’s artful writing. I often read single chapters as a sort of “morning devotional”, and over the couple of weeks I was reading the book I couldn’t help but discuss some of the more interesting bits at staff meetings or with friends.

Blue’s discussion of the birds overturns common understandings of familiar Bible passages, as the subtitle “a provocative guide” suggests. One way Blue achieves this is through combing over the original Greek and Hebrew (for example, “dove” may be better translated as “pigeon”, while “eagle” may be better translated as “vulture”). Furthermore, Blue also combines historical research with some of her own bird-watching to uncover possible connotations different birds may have carried to the original biblical authors or the historical Christian church, the sort of connotations that modern western Christians may not pick up on reading the next.

I would not recommend this book as an introduction to the Bible or as a guide to Christian living, as it does not address major Biblical themes or even many basic concepts (e.g. salvation, community, etc.). For example, I am not going to be using this book with any of my youth (except for, of course, relevant portions of the raven chapter). Rather, I would recommend this book for someone who has grown familiar with the Bible, and perhaps is either a little bored with Scripture or has grown rigid in their interpretation of the text. For many of us, Blue’s book serves as a reminder that we are not called to put the Bible in (metaphorical) bird cages, but rather be bird watchers as God’s revelation to the world continually shows up and surprises us anew.

(A good complementary read for Consider the Birds would be Scot McKnight’s The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible, as both books deal with fresh yet faithful understandings of Scripture, and of course have birds as a symbolic connection).

View Consider the Birds: A Subversive Guide to the Birds of the Bible on Amazon.com

Freeing the Bible from bird cages

Barbara Brown Taylor’s “An Altar in the World”

I hardly pride myself on having good taste, but I am very fortunate to have friends who do or at least should. So when one of those friends, particularly my tall Dutch friend, recommended Barbara Brown Taylor’s book An Altar in the World, I felt like the responsible thing to do was read it. And I’m glad I did.

Taylor, an Episcopal priest who left 20 years of parish leadership for a life that is now split between farming and academia in Georgia, wrote this book as someone who had grasped “religion” but was now trying to understand “spirituality.” Could the presence of God be experienced outside church walls?

She cites the biblical story of Jacob’s dream in where he thought was the middle of nowhere, and what actually could have been just an ordinary dream without supernatural intervention led Jacob to proclaim, “Surely God is in this place — and I did not know it! How awesome is this place!” Jacob proceeded to take the stone that he used as a pillow and planted it into the ground, poured oil on it, and called that middle-of-nowhere place “the house of God.”  Jacob’s “altar in the world”, significant for many reasons, becomes the foundation of Taylor’s book.

Although Brown talks about this-worldly spirituality using Christian language, it is completely accessible to non-Christians. Instead of taking the preacher’s role of how Scripture informs our worldview, Taylor uses the book of the world to uncover what can we all can know about experiencing the divine. This puts her book in the same genre as the Indian thinkers Buddha and Kabir, both of whom she cites at least once. This is why some of the spiritual practices she describes, like the labyrinth or prayer or the sabbath, will be familiar to Christians; while others, like “paying attention” or “carrying water” might catch us by surprise.

One of those chapters, “The Practice of Getting Lost” more than resonated with me. It was eerily like the short mediation I wrote in June on “The Simple Pleasure of Being Lost“, down to the tirade against GPSes we both made. Although Taylor is much more eloquent than myself, I took some surprising joy in knowing that somehow the 21st century has affected me and a Southern Episcopalian priest, now in her sixties, in much the same way. (Perhaps I’m not all that crazy, or at least I have a worthy companion in the crazy-den.)

That said, there were some things in the book that made me flinch. For example,

“I use paper, and I know it has to come from somewhere. I just hate thinking that a whole forest came down for one run of a mail-order catalog, especially since I saw so many copies of that catalog in the trash at the post office. From there, they will go to the landfill, where wastepaper is the number one problem. The sacrament of the catalog creates more than reverence in me; it creates painful awareness of my part in the felling of the forest. It weaves me into the web of cause and effect, reminding me of my place in the overall scheme of things.” -p.31-2

There actually is nothing wrong with this (well-worded) quote itself. The problem is that Taylor didn’t go where I expected. I found myself wondering: “Where is the call to action? Where is the prophetic fury against the powers that be, which are causing this literal mess?” Taylor was content to feel the “pain” of brokenness, and I could not help but wonder why this “pain” did not directly result in some sort of burning desire to change the world.

But now, after journeying through Taylor’s book, I realize I was trying to impose political fury on a list of personal practices. My own tendency towards problem-solving was getting in the way of problem-feeling. Similarly, whereas I wanted to know how to make the broken world beautiful, Taylor was teaching me how to pause to the beauty in the world, stubbornly shining through brokenness.

Granted, as far as books written from the Christian perspective go, this hardly gets to the meat of the gospel. The gospel is not romantic but radical. Living life well is quite different from losing one’s life.

But these aren’t contradictions. One example from Christian scripture: Song of Solomon, a book that is undeniably about proper orientation to a particular aspect of our physical existence, and Isaiah, a book undeniably about proper orientation to the divine and divine justice, sit right next to each other in the biblical canon. In that tradition, then, An Altar in the World can coexist with, say, the missional-minded The King Jesus Gospel of Scot McKnight, my former professor (who, it just so happens also wrote a book on living life well, One.Life.)

There was a moment, back during this late summer, when I was about half-way through Taylor’s book, and I had just spent the afternoon trying to figure out my working situation come autumn, on websites like craiglist and idealist and npo.net and indeed.com. And while I told myself I was being productive, I realized that all I was doing was browsing career porn, doing more fantasizing about vocation than actually applying to anything.

It was high-season for blueberries back in the Pacific Northwest, and we had a number of them ripe for the picking in the backyard. Frustrated from looking for a job in Chicago while in Portland, I went outside with a large bowl and just started adding berries to it. The sun was just beginning to set, creating the brilliant orange and purples of the summer sky. About twenty minutes later I had to go back inside for a second bowl.

There was something cathartic about picking berries, about grasping by the hand the potential productivity that lay in the immediate moment, in the immediate vicinity. There were no paychecks involved, but there were blueberries. It was neither perfect nor ideal – some berries were still a touch green while others were so ripe with juice they had exploded all over themselves – but it was real and fulfilling.

It was at this time that I began taking Taylor’s book seriously. Not just as a recommendation from a friend, or a somewhat sophisticated version of a self-help book, but exactly as what Taylor said she set out to explore.

No one longs for what he or she already has, and yet the accumulated insight of those wise about the spiritual life suggests that the reason so many of us cannot see the red X that marks the spot is because we are standing on it. The treasure we seek requires no lengthy expedition, no expensive equipment, no superior aptitude or special company. All we lack is the willingness to imagine that we already have everything we need. The only thing missing is our consent to be where we are. – p.xvi-xcii

Barbara Brown Taylor’s “An Altar in the World”

Missing the Jungle for the Trees

When it comes to technology, I feel like I fall somewhere on the spectrum between savvy and Luddite. I have been faithfully using a Kindle Fire throughout this year, mostly for light web browsing and listening to various podcasts. But to date I have been too reluctant to actually buy any e-books for the Kindle Fire, even though that really is what the device is optimized to do. There is just something that does not seem right about dropping cash for a file so small that it could fit on a floppy disk, and in ten or so years has the potential to end up in the same graveyard of obsolete technologies.

But there is a work-around. Amazon offers a bunch of “classics” – popular books whose copyright has expired – for free. Enticed by the sound of free, I first read G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy this winter and then moved on to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle for the spring and summer.

Deciding to read The Jungle was a bit of a whim. I knew I had been in Chicago for some time and felt like I was overdue to read something that was from and about Chicago. Between high school U.S. history and a number of vintage posters hanging around the city, I knew that Sinclair’s 1906 novel had a significant impact on Chicago history. Convinced as anyone getting something for free needs to be, I clicked to download another e-book written before the advent of the computer.

Like many non-English majors starting out to read a classic novel for fun, I probably spent more time the first few months telling people I was reading The Jungle than actually sitting down and reading it. Often the conversation went something like “Oh, isn’t that the book that exposed the meatpacking industry?” I nodded yes, because by Chapter 3 Jurgis Radkus, Lithuanian immigrant and newlywed, had already gotten his first job at Brown’s slaughterhouse in the Packinghouse district, and I figured the gruesome depiction of twenty-five thousand cows, pigs and sheep being turned into food with mathematical efficiency was only going to get worse.

“The shriek was followed by another, louder and yet more agonizing — for once started upon that journey, the hog never came back; at the top of the wheel he was shunted off upon a trolley, and went sailing down the room. And meantime another was swung up, and then another, and another, until there was a double line of them, each dangling by a foot and kicking in frenzy — and squealing.”

“They don’t waste anything here,” said the guide…”They use everything about the hog except the squeal.”

“The floor was half an inch deep with blood, in spite of the best efforts of men who kept shoveling it through holes…”

“The people of Chicago saw the government inspectors in Packingtown, and they all took that to mean that they were protected from diseased meat; they did not understand that these hundred and sixty-three inspectors had been appointed at the request of the packers, and that they were paid by the United States government to certify that all the diseased meat was kept in the state.”

Not even halfway through the book, however, Jurgis finds himself fired from the meatpacking plant, Chicago corruption being such that he has been blacklisted from the entire industry. The machine he was so excited to be a part of is now grinding against him. I was baffled – “if he’s not working the meatpacking industry anymore, then what is this book really about?”

Every jungle has rivers.

Each plot arc, I began to realize, was another episode in a disappointing cycle of hope hitting frustration into despair. A rent-to-own housing plan turns into a penniless eviction, a free man in the free world winds up in jail, his teenage sweetheart dies giving birth, and his precious three-year old son falls off the wood-plank sidewalk and drowns in a mud puddle. Heartbreak pushes Jurgis to escape the city, but the Illinois countryside spits him back out to the city. A fun night as the entourage of a millionaire playboy turns into humiliating verbal abuse, an entry into political cronyism ends with one misstep. Even Jurgis’ close relation, the confident and capable Marija, caves in to the pressures of “just getting by” and turns to prostitution.

And somehow, this story of immigrant life in and against the city got missed. The book that inspired the masses to support the “Meat Inspection Act” and the “Pure Food and Drug Act” was not about the food on our tables or much less the humane treatment of animals, but rather the humane treatment of humans. While certainly these consumer advocacy programs were good things, how was it that we were not equally moved to do stand up for the rights of people like Jurgis?

Sinclair, I recently discovered, lamented the public hermeneutic of selfishness through which The Jungle was received – “I aimed at the public’s heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

One character of note is the pretty young lady (found on Location #3158 on the Kindle edition) who, as a person of privilege and could easily of stayed in her own high-class bubble, choose to listen to stories of grit instead of escapist fantasies or the 1906-equivalent of reality TV foolery.

“They were rich people who came to live there to find out about the poor people; but what good they expected it would do them to know, one could not imagine…Elzbieta was glad to have somebody to listen, and she told all their woes–what had happened to Ona, and the jail, and the loss of their home, and Marija’s accident, and how Ona had died, and how Jurgis could get no work. As she listened the pretty young lady’s eyes filled with tears, and in the midst of it she burst into weeping and hid her face on Elzbieta’s shoulder, quite regardless of the fact that the woman had on a dirty old wrapper and that the garret was full of fleas.”

This is no 21st-century novel. Sinclair espouses an outdated breed of socialist thought, and the portrayal of Chicago’s African-American community shouldn’t have been cool then and isn’t cool now. Neither of these inadequacies disturb me as much as how many people read this best-selling book and how few seemed to have gotten the larger point.

What will happen when the 21st-century equivalent of The Jungle is published? For those of us who have the choice – are we going to be “pretty young ladies” (or gentlemen), willing to listen, cry alongside, and speak up for the oppressed voiceless? Or are we going to repeat the incomplete sympathies of the past, glimpsing into slaughterhouse horrors and thinking only about our own kitchen tables?

That equivalent may be a book, a movie, a live performance, something downloadable onto a Kindle, or even a person met on the street.

It would be shame if, once again, we missed the jungle for the trees.

Missing the Jungle for the Trees