A PostHope Hope: a book review

Can Hope survive  with the collapse of epistemology certainty? Is God necessarily existent for spiritual experience? Can the nihilism of our age open us up to the possibility of grace? Phenomenologist and deconstructionist John D. Caputo wrestles with these questions and more in his intellectual memoir, Hoping Against Hope (Confessions of a Postmodern Pilgrim). The book is a spiritual autobiography of sorts, but it only reveals the broad contours of Caputo’s life, focusing on the development (or deconstruction?) of his thoughts on God, faith and certainty.

Hoping Against Hope by John D. “Jackie” “Brother Paul” Caputo

Caputo was raised in a devout Catholic family. He spent four years as a De LaSalle monk,  before his illustrious career as a philosopher and theologians (thirty-six years as professor of Philosophy at Villanova University and professor of philosophy of religion at Syracuse University for seven years). In Hoping Against Hope he gives voice and personality to these various stages of his intellectual development. As a child Caputo was an altar boy in pre-Vatican II Catholicism who had memorized the Baltimore Catechism. Caputo refers to this younger self  as “Jackie.” “Brother Paul,” is the monk Caputo who grew callouses on his knees in an attempt to learn prayer and had a love for the mystics. The professor, “John D.,” is the the philosopher who’s tongue was loosed by Jacques Derrida (the other Jackie) and the French Postmodernists.

Caputo writes:

My life as a philosopher gas taken place in the distance between theology and philosophy. Like everyone else, however far forward I thought I moved, I was always circling around my origins. I soon found that the audacity of the philosophers who “dare to think” according to the Enlightenment motto, fails them when it comes to theology. There they panic, in fear of contamination. They treat the name of God like a terrible computer virus that will corrupt all their files, or like a real one, like the Ebola virus, where the odds of recovering are against you. So, mostly at the beginning of my professional life, when “John D.” stepped forth and responded to the title “professor,” while telling Jackie to stay at home, I was worried that they would say, “This is not philosophy, this is just his religion.” But my religion is between me and Brother Paul and Jackie and several others. How can they know anything about that? (104-105).

With the Continental Philosophers, Heidigger, Derrida, Lacan, Lyotoard, Levinas, and others, Caputo thoroughly rejects the narrative of the Christian tradition and the official line of the Roman Catholic church. He dismantles dogma, expresses his antagonism toward  the afterlife and a God that is either ‘ the Prime Punisher and the Royal Rewarder (64). He also regards the arguement between atheism and theism to be wrong-headed. With a Zen-Koan-like-air he proclaims, “God does not exist. God insists” (114). He gives fresh and unique interpretations of scripture and imagines the textual variants he wishes to one day uncover. Caputo’s thoughts run far a field from classic Christian orthodoxy.

But his project isn’t wholly negative. Caputo upholds active service to the poor and marginalized and the non-religious religion of love. He says his idea of nihilism is stolen from the mystics and he employs insights from Miester Eckhardt and Marguerite Porete (both mystics ran a foul from official church teaching). What Caputo proposes is a religion of the Rose–“The rose is without why; it blossoms because it blossoms; It cares not for itself, asks not if it’s seen” (27). He brings this verse from Angelus Silesius into conversation wiht Lyotard’s religion of the smile and posits a nihilism where all of life is received as a gift  (with or without a giver), where all of life is received without condition (181).

As an intellectual memoir/spiritual autobiography I give this three stars and thought it was an interesting read. I especially loved the ‘short nocturnal dialogue’ where Caputo imagines a dialogue with himself at his different stages of faith and intellectual development. I appreciate how Caputo’s postmodernity leads him to pluralism and relativism without the need to posit an underlying universal faith in God.  However, I am unconvinced by Caputo’s theological vision and see his radical (or weakness) theology as incompatible with the Christian gospel of grace. I was aware of Caputo before reading this book, so wasn’t particularly surprised by what he says here.  I have read him before and have seen him lecture. I find him fascinating. I also find it ironic that I received this book from Cross Focused reviews. If Caputo mentions the cross at all (and I don’t remember that he does in this book), it is clearly not his focus. Anyway, I received this book in exchange for my honest review. ★★★

American Civil Religion: a book review

American Civil Religion is not Christianity, nor is it any of the great world religions. The term ‘civil religion’ describes the way politicians use religious imagery and  myth toward nationalistic ends. It denotes the way national symbols and political rhetoric comes to take on  religious characteristics.  Gary Laderman writes:

Americans live by common myths, or sacred stories that express the ideals and fears, moral imperatives, and shared themes that make sense of the world and orient the American nation in a larger, cosmic sense of providence, destiny, and God’s designs. It is in this combination of myths, rituals, morality, God, and meaning that religious nationalism assumes form and acquires content as a religious culture generally under the public radar, but certainly a prime driver in American politics.(19)

American Civil Religion by Gary Laderman

Laderman is professor of American Religious History and Cultures at Emory University and a deft guide through the pseudo-religious landscape of American civil religion. His new E-Textbook from Fortress Press,  American Civil Religion  examines the intersection of religion, politics and culture. The e-book structure allows him to include images, link to relevant online media sources (i.e. YouTube) to present a text that is as dynamic as it is informative.

Laderman begins each of the three sections of this book with a case study from American history which explores a particular theme. In part one of this book he examines the past and present of civil religion in America. His ‘case study’ is the flag-waving after September 11th.  Citing Robert Bellah, he argues that in times of social crisis Americans ‘find solace in their sacred status (29).’  The flag becomes a sacred symbol because of the ritiuals surrounding it which point to shared identity and transcendence.  The American brand of ‘civil religion’ owes much to its protestant and Puritan heritage which affirmed the absolute transcendence of God and his involve in political affairs.  This heritage, combined with the Deism of the founding of America also left an indelible mark  giving Americans sacred principles to rally around (connecting God and national destiny, self-determination, religious freedom).

In part two Laderman describes how war and violence are sacramentalized by the body politic. The civil war is his case study and a prime example of how ‘sacrifice for the union’ took on a spiritual dimension.  The death of Abraham Lincoln became a symbol of unity for the Union and the ritual surrounding his travelling embalmed body brought cohesion to a nation in need of healing. Certainly the civil war was not the only example of this: wars and rumors of wars abound in American history. Laderman examines a number of moments of crisis in American history where the rhetoric surrounding the death of soliders takes on a religious/transcendent dimension. Presidents from both sides of the aisle use religious imagery to justify wars and honor the dead.

Part three describes how the political leaders make use of sacred symbols in pop culture. Laderman’s case study is Ronald Reagan’s attempt to co-opt Springsteen’s Born in the USA. However  Reagan is not the only president to take hold of cultural images. Other presidents have made use of the media and new technologies to serve their ends  (From FDR’s Fireside chats to Obama’s YouTube channel and beyond). In the last chapter Laderman discusses the plurality of “American Civil Religions” as each religion (Christianity in Protestant and Catholic varieties, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism  etc) is  used to serve national and cultural ends.

This is a meaty little book (93 pages with pictures). It offers an astute analysis of the religious character of American culture and institutions.  Laderman is a historian and the chief value of this book is the way he illustrates ‘civil religion’ with examples from our history.  If you are looking for a book which examines how religious metaphor has been co-opted in the American context, this book provides an insightful analysis. Laderman stops short of telling readers what their response should be to these trends. Clearly sometimes the religious dimension to American public life has served some good. However, sometimes  the trends are somewhat troubling and American civil religion tends to over-promise. Reaching for transcendence will do that to you.

I enjoyed this book and the use of images and video clips enriched the text. I give this four stars: ★★★★☆

Thank you to Fortress Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Introduction to Christian Liturgy: a book review

Why do we Worship? What is Liturgy? What are the main periods  of liturgical history? What characterizes  liturgy in each of these periods?  What does it mean to sanctify time?  How is liturgical space arranged? How is the body used in worship? How are children formed in Christian worship?

Introduction to Christian Liturgy by Frank C. Senn

These are just some of the questions which Frank Senn answers in Introduction to Christian Liturgy. In this book he describes, catalogues and commends a thoughtful appropriation of liturgical practices in worship.  This is a solid introduction  to liturgy and covers topics like:  what liturgy is, history and culture (and how liturgy inculturates), the order of service, the liturgy of hours, the church calender and the history and meaning of various seasons,  life passages, liturgical arts, and how congregants participate in worship.  While Senn himself is a Lutheran pastor and liturgist, his approach is ecumenical. He is able to synthesize the insights of liturgists and scholars from various traditions (i.e. Schmemann, Wainwright, Lathrop, White, Bradshaw, etc.) and he surveys liturgical traditions from the Orthodox to the Vineyard movement.

This is a very good book for anyone interested in liturgy.  In each of  the chapters (which explore the topics listed above), Senn answers a series of  questions. This makes this book a quick reference for each of the various elements.  Senn calls his book a ‘pastoral liturgical handbook’ and envisions that this book will be most useful to pastoral leaders by making them knowledgeable of the liturgical tradition and enabling them to answer specific questions lay people may have (1-2). His contention is that pastors who are knowledgeable of the history and trends can help shape the liturgy for a particular context in a way that is congregationally  and culturally sensitive. He does not articulate a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to Christian liturgy, but commends to you the rich resources of the Christian tradition.

Three groups will find this book helpful. As Senn envisions, this book will be helpful to pastoral leaders and other worship leaders as a resource on liturgy. It will help pastors answer questions about the liturgy and help them lead congregants into the significance of various rituals and ceremonies. Secondly, this book will be well used in an academic context. The  comprehensive way in which Senn addresses the various pieces of Christian liturgy makes it an ideal text for courses on liturgy and worship.  I would have loved a text like this in seminary which described the various elements of worship in various traditions.  Third, the educated lay person will also find this book helpful. The question-and-answer organization to this book, makes it a quick and accessible resource. This is the sort of reference book which is great addition to a personal or church library.

My own ecclesiastical tradition is not directly named in this text. The church I attend is not particularly ‘high church.’ We have a worship team and  don’t often follow the Lectionary but we do have some liturgical features we hold dear. We celebrate weekly communion, observe the Christian seasons and our pastor will ‘robe up’ to perform baptisms and dedications (significant life events).  This liturgical ‘hodge podge’ is due to the fact that my denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church retains some of the traditional elements from their Swedish Lutheran roots, but their churches also bear the influence of revivalism.  Senn names and describes both of these influences and there is a lot here that would be applicable to my context. Likewise, Christians from a wide swath of Christian traditions will also find various entry points into this subject matter.

I am happy to recommend this book to students, pastors, worship leaders and any one interested in liturgical practice. This is an ‘introduction’ so does not say all that needs to be said about liturgy, but Senn points readers to other resources at the end of each chapter, so that they may deepen their liturgical understanding. Senn does what any good guide does and names the flora and fauna of the terrain he traverses and points the way for those who wish to explore further. I give this book five star: ★★★★★

Thank you to Fortress Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.