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December Books

Well, a couple of really good books to end the year:
1. Beginning from Jerusalem: Christianity in the Making, Volume 2 by James D. G. Dunn.
I have an ever increasing amount of respect for James Dunn as a scholar.  In fact, I am beginning to think that he is the quintessential scholar.  He is extraordinarily thorough in his research and appropriately cautious in his conclusions.  He is aware of the various angles taken on the matters at hand, and he is also aware of the limits confronted by those who study material that is a couple thousand years old.  Further, of all the biblical scholars I have read (and I have read a good many of them), Dunn seems to be the person who is most genuinely trying to confront the biblical con/texts on their own terms, instead of pushing his own agenda.
All of this is put into practice in Beginning From Jerusalem, Dunn’s 1300+pp volume on the development of Christianity from approximately 30-70CE.  Understandably, the bulk of the work is focused on Paul’s life and letters, and it was interesting to see how Dunn’s thinking on Paul has progressed since he wrote his (also impressive) The Theology of Paul the Apostle.  I was particularly interested in Dunn’s understanding of the social status of Paul and the members of the ekklesiai he helped to develop, as well as Dunn’s understanding of the importance of the imperial cult and Paul’s relation to it.  I was glad to see Dunn paying more attention to these matters and highlighting their significance to a greater degree than he has done in the past (he admits, in conversation with N. T. Wright, that these matters weren’t on his radar when he wrote his book on Pauline theology and since that conversation — in that conversation he seems more hesitant to ascribe significance to political affairs, but in Beginning from Jerusalem, it seems that he now sees more of a tense relationship between Pauline theology and the imperial ideology [see here for that conversation]).  However, Dunn doesn’t come to many conclusions about these things in this volume, which was a bit disappointing to me.  He simply makes some observations, states some of his hesitations (for example, he thinks that Justin Meggitt overstates his case in Paul, Poverty, and Survival but he doesn’t say why he has come to this conclusion), and does not draw any comprehensive conclusion about Paul’s relationship to the dominant politics of his day (of course, given that such an endeavour would have probably added another 100pp to this already massive volume, it’s understandable that Dunn draws the line where he does).
That said, let me repeat that this is really an extraordinary book and one that I think should be required reading for anybody studying the New Testament or the origins of Christianity.  I look forward to reading Volume 3.
2. Church Dogmatics II.2: The Doctrine of God by Karl Barth.
I have discovered something surprising as I have been (very slowly) working my way through Barth’s dogmatics.  The surprising thing is this: Barth is pretty much the only author I read who consistently stirs up ‘devotional’ feelings in me.  That is to say, when I was younger I used to do a lot more ‘devotional’ reading that would somehow make me feel as though I was closer to God or communing with God or whatever.  In the last half dozen years, that feeling has mostly disappeared from my reading (although those like Nouwen and von Balthasar can still sometimes stir it in me).  However, for whatever reason, I find that reading Barth leads me to feel that way fairly consistently.  This is pleasantly surprising (to me, anyway) given that the Church Dogmatics are often considered to be an daunting and heavy theological enterprise.
Anyway, I greatly enjoyed the first half of this volume, which was focused upon the concept of election.  Much of what Barth had to say in that section was very beautiful and I loved the way he reworked the traditional Calvinist notion of double predestination — according to Barth, it is Jesus Christ who is predestined to face the damning wrath of God so that all humanity is predestined to be saved in Christ.  Indeed, after reading through the dogmatics up to this point, I am having trouble in seeing how Barth can be anything but a (hopeful) universalist.
The second half of the volume, focused upon theological ethics, was a little more dry and disappointing.  I was hoping for a little more direct ethical engagement but the section focused more upon the foundation of ethics (which is appropriate, I guess, given that this section falls within Barth’s doctrine of God).
All in all, a good read, and I’m looking forward to moving on to CD III.1 (and I’m also relieved to have finished this before the end of the year, as I’ve been intending to read at least one volume per year, until I finish the CD, and I didn’t think I was going to make it this year).
3. The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex edited by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence.
This is a really fantastic collection of essays, written by scholarly activists, personally invested in a range of local community organizations.  It should be required reading for most people involved in social work, non-profits, or the ‘helping professions’ more generally (especially those in positions of management).
What this book does is explore the various ways in which non-profits have been co-opted and used to divert social movements from their intended goals of engaging in the radical transformation of society.  Thus non-profits, despite the good intentions of those invested in them, become a way of maintaining the (oppressive) status quo, rather then being agents of significant socio-political and economic change (hence, the ‘non-profit industrial complex’ (NPIC) is defined as ‘a set of symbiotic relationships that link political and financial technologies of state and owning class control with surveillance over public political ideology, including and especially emergent progressive and leftist social movments’; thus, the NPIC is a natural corrolary to more famous remarks that have been made about the ‘prison industrial complex’ and the ‘military industrial complex).  This is then demonstrated in relation to multiple movements that occured in America in the last sixty years — the black civil rights movement, the American Indian Movement, women’s movements, and urban movements to build community and overcome poverty.  Some areas that face particularly heavy criticisms are those related to funding and philanthropy, those related to the professionalization of social workers and of management (and the gap that grows between the two), and the ways in which non-profits become removed from intimate connections to the community of people whom they claim to serve.
I very highly recommend this book.
4. Madness and Civilization by Michel Foucault.
In this book, Foucault explores the various ways in which ‘madness’ was understood in Europe (and especially in France and England) during the period spanning from the late middle ages to the modern period.    By studying madness in this way, Foucault comes to the conclusion that madness is, in fact, a cultural moral construct — i.e. what madness is understood to be, and how one is to relate to it, is determined by one’s historico-cultural location and one’s moral paradigms and presuppositions.  This, then, challenges psychiatric and medical views which rose to hegemonic positions during the modern period, for these views (attempt but fail to, according to Foucault) remove madness from the realm of culture and of morality, and locate it as an independent ontological entity within the realm of medical science and psychiatry.
Like Foucault’s other histories — particularly those related to criminality and sexuality — I find this to be largely convincing.  I think that Foucault is continually offering important correctives to the ways in which we have been culturally conditioned to think of these things and his conclusions certainly align well with my own experiences as I have journeyed alongside of a good many who have been called ‘mad’, ‘criminal’ or ‘perverse’.  A good read.
5. Egil’s Saga (Penguin Classics Edition).
After reading and enjoying some books by Sigrid Undset (the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy and Gunnar’s Daughter), all of which were inspired by the old Norse and Icelandic sagas, I thought I would go back and begin to read some of those actual sagas.  So, Egil’s Saga was my first foray into that territory.  It focuses upon the life and family of Egil Skallagrimsson and covers the period of time from c.850-1000CE (although one should note that the earliest written fragment of this saga dates to 1240CE).  It was a fun read, full of adventure, betrayal, murder, battles, and all the good stuff that one imagines when one thinks of vikings.  Furthermore, although the nature of this sort of literature is quite different than the modern novel, it is interesting to note the complexity of character that is created — Egil is both vicious and petty but he is also intelligent, poetic, and fiercely loyal.
Also, as a bit of an aside, this book made me glad that I wasn’t born in the age of vikings.  I never would have survived.  From here, I’m hoping to track down either Njal’s Saga or the Laxdaela Saga.  Good fun.
6. Demian by Hermann Hesse.
This book was something of a let down.  Hesse can be a really good writer and can certainly string together some beautiful and insightful sentences — take this example from the Prologue (pardon the androcentric language and some of the German Romanticism):

What constitutes a real, live human being is more of a mystery than ever these days, and men — each one of whom is a valuable, unique experiment on the part of nature — are shot down wholesale.  If, however, we were not something more than unique human beings and each man jack of us could really be dismissed from this world with a bullet, there would be no more point in relating stoires at all.  But every man is not only himself; he is also the unique, particular, always significant and remarkable point where the phenomena of the world intersect once and for all and never again.  That is why every man’s story is important, eternal, sacred; and why every man while he lives and fulfils the will of nature is a wonderful creature, deserving the utmost attention.  In each individual the spirit is made flesh, in each one the whole of creation suffers, in each one a Saviour is crucified.

Unfortunately, apart from a few stand-alone passages, I found this book to be rather dull.  Basically, Hesse’s book is an exploration of the creation of a synthesis between Eastern mysticism and Western romantic individualism under the supervision of Nietzche’s reflections upon the revaluation of values and the Übermensch.  So, while this may have been new and/or exciting at the time that Hesse wrote this book, it’s the sort of thing that has been done a thousand times since then and, to be honest, the sort of thing I find a little wearisome.  Not recommended reading.

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  1. Thanks for the recommendation on The Revolution Will Not Be Funded. I’ve had it on my wish list for a couple of years, and really need to get around to reading it (especially because I’m in a scholarship program at school that revolves around service, so when I’m not reading my own philosophy stuff, non-profits and the like are pretty much the air I breathe).

  2. Dan,
    I fully agree with your views on Dunn. I read much of and relied heavily on Christianity in the Making Vol. 1 for my dissertation in Aberdeen, and found him to be spot on and quite genuine. Definitely books I would like to get my hands on one day. His little book called ‘Jesus’ Call to Discipleship’ is fantastic.


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