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September Books

Finished off a fair amount this month… which is why I’ve been delaying writing this up.
1. Reading Romans In Pompeii: Paul’s Letter at Ground Level by Peter Oakes.
This is a really excellent study of socio-economic diversity that existed amongst the urban populations of cities during the time when Paul was helping to build the early Jesus movement throughout the Roman empire.  Employing detailed archaeological evidence from Pompeii, Oakes helps to fill out the picture of the differences that existed amongst the 99% of the people who lived in the empire but were not elite.  Picking representative examples from this population, he then looks at how members of those groups would hear Paul’s letter to Rome (while factoring in other local considerations).
By engaging in this study, Oakes is building upon the important contributions of those like Justin Meggitt and Steven Friesen who have done a lot of important work to demonstrate that the early Christian movement was one that arose amongst those who were poor, of little status, and likely lived just at or below the subsistence level (with a few members living slightly above subsistence).  By building this case, Meggitt and Friesen have countered the prior conensus (most often associated with Gerd Theissen) which maintained that Paul’s churches were run by a wealthy and elite minority.
Oakes, then, mostly accepts the case made by Meggitt and Friesen but he fills it out and nuances it in some important ways.  He demonstrates that even amongst the poor and those of little status, more diversity existed than had been previously imagined.
I believe that this is an important study and one of the best I have read on the socioeconomic status of the members of the early assemblies of Jesus.  Oakes reading of Romans in light of this context, and of the possible members in the assemblies, is especially rich… and (surprise, surprise) continues to build the case for counter-imperial readings of Paul.
2. Christian Origins: A People’s History of Christianity, Volume One edited by Richard Horsley.
Inspired by Howard Zinn’s effort to write a people’s history of the United States — a history that looks at the experience of the conquered, the oppressed, the poor, and those generally not included (or mentioned favourably) in dominant historical narratives — a multi-volume series has been written in order to try and write a people’s history of Christianity.  Scholars in various fields, disciplines, and sub-disciplines have contributed to the project creating a rich, albeit eclectic, look at what has arisen after the life and death of Jesus.
In this volume, a number of top notch scholars look mostly at Jesus, Paul, the Gospels, and the Pauline assemblies of Jesus and explore the actual cultural, economic, religious and political contexts of the first-century and what that might mean for a people’s history of the early years of the Jesus movement.  There are a number of excellent essays here (and a few that are sorta dull) but all are quite accessible and would probably be of interest to those who want something of a scattered overview of these things.
3. Life of the Beloved by Henri Nouwen.
It’s always interesting to go back and re-read books that impacted you at different times of life.  Throughout my undergraduate years, Life of the Beloved was the book that most impacted me. I gave copies to many others and it had a similar impact upon them as well.  Last month, I thought I would pick it up again since I’ve been undergoing some pretty major shifts in my thinking regarding the significance of love and of knowing one’s self as “beloved” (I’ll probably blog more about that as some point).  Therefore, I thought maybe I should re-read this book and see if it helped to reorient my thinking and root me back where I used to be.
But it didn’t.  I actually hardly connected with the book at all this time around.  This is not to say that I disagree with what Nouwen says.  I actually agree with most of what he says, and still do understand myself to be “beloved”… it’s just that this doesn’t matter all that much to me anymore.  Now, I tend to think of breaking through to this understanding of one’s self to be an important step along a certain road, but not the destination I once thought that it was.
I was quite surprised by all this.  I have read some other works by Nouwen relatively recently (<i>The Way of the Heart</i> comes to mind) that I enjoyed but this one, previously one of my all-time favourite books, did little for me this time (unlike Jacques Ellul’s <i>Hope in Time of Abandonment</i> which blew my mind the first time around and, now that I’m re-reading it, is impacting me even more deeply… but I’ll save those remarks for next month).
4. Where We Stand: Class Matters by bell hooks.
When reading hooks’ assertion that defaults on loans for mortgages, and issues related to housing, will provoke a massive crisis, it’s hard to believe that this book was written in the year 2000.  At that time, hooks thought a housing crisis might give birth to class war.  She was wrong about that (so far), but there is so much else that she gets right in this excellent study on the central significance of class analysis for efforts to create positive change.
Basically, what hooks does in a very personal way is demonstrate how struggles for liberation — notably those related to gender and race — are incomplete and bound to remain superficial, impotent or become co-opted unless they are fundamentally rooted in an explicit class struggle (Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton provide us with two great examples of that today).  Tied into this is also a lot of discussion of wealth and poverty, status and shame, and ways in which Christian traditions (notably inspirations from Latin American liberation theology) can help us find our way forward.
A great book.  Short, easy to read, but intimate and powerful.  I recommend it.
5. White on Black by Ruben Gallego.
I saw this book mentioned on Jason Goroncy’s blog, and began searching for it immediately.  It’s an horrific but compelling true story of the time the author spent as a disabled youth (he has cerebral palsy and lacks the use of his arms and legs) growing up in institutions in mid-twentieth century Russia.  Gallego, however, writes with a very beautiful voice and, just to give you a glimpse of that, I thought I would record the preface here:

On Strength and Goodness
People sometimes ask me whether what I write actually happened.  Are the heroes of my stories real?
I answer: It did, and they are, more than real.  Naturally, my heroes are collective images from the endless kaleidoscope of my endless children’s homes.  What I write, though, is the truth.
The sole characteristic of my work that departs from, and at times contradicts, the authenticity of real life is my authorial view, which may be rather sentimental, occasionally breaking into pathos.  I purposely avoid writing about anything bad.
I’m convinced that life and literature have more than enough of the dark side.  It’s just so happened that I’ve witnessed too much human cruelty and hate.  To describe the vileness of man’s fall and bestiality is to multiply the already endless chain of interconnected blasts of evil.  That’s not what I want.  I write about goodness, triumph, joy, and love.
I write about strength.  Spiritual and physical strength.  The strength each one of us has inside.  Te strength that breaks through all barriers to triumph.  Each of the stories is a story of triumph.  Even the boy from “The Cutlet,” a rather sad story, triumphs.  He triumphs twice.  First, when out of the chaotic mess of his useless knowledge, and for lack of a knife, he finds the only three words that have any effect on his adversary.  And, second, when he decides to eat the cutlet–that is, to live.
Those whose sole victory is their voluntary departure from life triumph as well.  The officer who perishes in the face of a superior opponent, who dies according to regulations, is a victor.  I respect such people.  All that same, what’s most important about this man are the stuffed toys.  I’m convinced that sewing teddy bears and bunny rabbits all your life is much harder than slitting your own throat once.  I’m convinced that on humanity’s scales of a child’s delight a new toy vastly outweighs any military victory.
This is a book about my childhood.  Cruel and terrible though it was, it was still my childhood.  It doesn’t take much for a child to retain his love for the world, to grow up and mature: a bit of lard, a salami sandwich, a handful of figs, a blue sky, a couple of books, a kind word.  That’s enough.  More than enough.
The heroes of this book are strong, very strong people.  All too often a person has to be strong.  And good.  Not everyone can let himself be good, and not everyone can overcome universal misunderstanding.  All too often, goodness is taken for weakness.  That’s sad.  It’s hard to be a human being, very hard, but altogether possible.  And you don’t have to stand on your hind legs to do it.  Not at all.  I believe that.

Recommended reading.
6. The Vatnsdaela Saga (from the Viking Press collection of Icelandic Sagas… naturally).
When I read heavier literature — authors like Proudhon or Gaddis recently — I like to maintain some balance and also read something simpler (but still high quality).  Thus, I continue to work my way through the Icelandic sagas.  The Vatnsdaela Saga was fun (but not as fun as Egil’s saga) and I do like how simple prose and a sparsity of words can still communicate a vivid picture and a depth of character.  Also, I think it’s funny that hella crazy/fierce/blood-thirsty vikings are scared of ol’ pussy cats.
7. The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart.
This is really quite a beautiful story about three generations of women in Guadeloupe. They experience hardship, loss and poverty but maintain (or learn to maintain) a strong sense of dignity, pride, beauty, and strength.  It is short but the prose is excellent, as though Schwarz-Bart employs just the right words and finds no need to fill them out or linger with them.  Recommended reading.

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