Goodreads Review–A Brief History of Theology

A Brief History of Theology: From the New Testament to Feminist TheologyA Brief History of Theology: From the New Testament to Feminist Theology by Derek Johnston

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this book, Johnston presents an accessible and clear overview of dominant, Western Christian thought from Paul through 20th and 21st century thinkers. It’s a useful resource for those who are new to Christian theology and want to understand some of its major developments. In other words, it’s a starting point, and Johnston is clear that it’s not comprehensive. For what it is, this book is helpful in summarizing the thought expressed in texts that might be difficult to comprehend if read unaided, as some of these ancient and metaphysical thinkers sometimes produced dense work. After reading this book, I now have a better understanding of theologians I already knew about and I’ve been introduced to theologians I hadn’t heard of. The book taken as a whole really illustrates that Christian thought has never been the stagnant, never-changing thing that some people believe it to be. Every supposedly timeless doctrine can be traced back to a person–a person who loved God and tried to articulate what it is to experience and believe in God.

Still, I was surprised that the author did not include a chapter on liberation theology or some better exposition of theology from the margins. He mentions it in passing in the sole feminist theology chapter, but doesn’t spend much time explaining it. I really think that a book aiming to survey the history of Christian theology should include such content, as there are certainly liberation theologians in the West that the author could have chosen to introduce readers to that approach to Christianity. So for people looking for an easy-to-follow introduction to liberation theology, I recommend Liberation Theology for Armchair Theologians.

Additionally, it’s sometimes obvious which thinkers the author prefers and which ones he’s more skeptical of in sections that are just meant to summarize the theologian’s life or thought. This didn’t really deter my enjoyment of the book; it was just something I noticed. One random thing I found hilarious, though, was his statement that Charles Wesley allegedly wrote over 9,000 hymns because now I will always associate Wesley with a classic Internet meme.

Lastly, the book could’ve used a copy edit. I often noticed unnecessary words in some sentences and punctuation errors that impacted flow.

Despite what I’ve noted here, I still found this to be a very informative and interesting book that has piqued my interest in the Bonhoeffer and Brueggemann books already in my library that I haven’t read yet.

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My blackout poetry collection, Forgive Us Our Trespasses is available as a paperback and an ebook! The poems explore faith, doubt, lament, and hope. Check it out and discover why readers have called it “pithy,” “insightful,” “visually stunning,” and “emotionally challenging.” Be sure to add the book to your Goodreads list and leave a review when you’re finished!

Also, check out select poems on Redbubble, available as prints, stickers, and many other products. They make great gifts!

Refusing Octavia Butler’s Vision in The Parable of the Sower

My church family has been passing around The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. When I finished it, I closed the book thinking, “Huh, okay then.”

I’ve read my fair share of bleak novels all through college and for me, The Parable of the Sower comes in second place in the extremely short list of depressing books that disturb yet fascinate me. First place goes to Blindness by José Saramago, which I literally threw across my dorm room as I had a mental breakdown because of how evil the characters in the book are. Yet Blindness ends on a happier note that The Parable of the Sower.

Butler makes her point very clear in this novel–the world is going to hell because humans are intrinsically terrible to the environment and terrible to each other. She presents a world where there’s no hope of healing rifts of any kind–racial, gender, or socioeconomic. People destroy each other and what little remains of actual communities, some hopped up on drugs and others just trying to survive. Trauma is such a regular occurrence that it’s narrated in the bluntest, matter-of-fact way. “So and so died today.” “So and so was raped.” “So and so’s house burned downed.” Even when the survival part of the story begins, the main character, Lauren, is nothing but a pessimist.

The status quo in this world is keep the poor out. Make sure you have guns to protect yourself from the crazy poor people and the druggies. Trust no one, not even old people or women with small children. Help no one except your own community.

It’s very desperate and isolating, yet Lauren acts against this as she continues her journey north from her destroyed neighborhood and forms her own community based on her Earthseed religion. Even so, it’s a future that I refuse to accept. I think Butler went overboard in both this novel and its sequel (which I may or may not read) so that we would actively refuse what she depicts.

Lauren refuses this vision in the book when she gives water to a young couple following her and when she stops to save two women trapped in a collapsed building and when she lets two strangers who wandered into her community overnight stay with their group. She does all of this despite the modus operandi of the world she lives in and despite her own strict convictions about how the world operates.

I think refusing Butler’s vision in our own world includes seeing the Other as human, not being afraid to feed homeless people, volunteering our own time and labor to build homes and cook meals, advocating for legal and social equity for the marginalized, and writing stories with more positive visions of the future so we don’t become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Goodreads Review–Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race

Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of RaceWaking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sometimes, members of socially privileged groups will only hear accounts of dismantling oppression from someone who also belongs to that same privileged group. Other times, those members of privileged groups who want to do the work of dismantling oppression are at a loss for how to do so among their own social spheres. “Waking Up White” is a book that speaks to both types of audiences.

Debby Irving exposes her own privileges and myriad blunders of journeying from a blissfully unaware white woman to a humble and ever-learning white ally who aims to educate other white people about the history of systemic racism in America and the effects of white people benefiting from it over people of color.

Not once does Irving present herself as a holier-than-thou, awakened know-it-all, which is sometimes the way that those who reject the notion of white privilege see those who engage daily in antiracist work. In fact, Irving is very open about every racist thought she’s had and every blunder she’s experienced in trying to unlearn the patterns and behaviors she grew up with, ones passed down to her from generations and generations of her family.

Because Irving intends this book to be used in workshops and other educational settings, she includes reflection questions and activities at the end of each chapter. This meant that I, as a reader, was constantly asking myself these questions and examining my own experiences in light of Irving’s.

I read this book because my church purchased several copies as a first step in deeply examining white privilege in our denomination and our own congregation. Despite the United Church of Christ’s overall progressive theology and social justice witness, it is a predominantly white denomination, so there is clearly something we’re collectively missing.

Like Tim Wise, Debby Irving is someone who is specifically there for white people’s education. She starts in the mindsets where so many white people start, with questions and assumptions both spoken aloud and internalized. I recommend this book to people who are just beginning to recognize white privilege, those who have been examining it for years, and those who are skeptical of its existence and effects. It’s a good starter resource that points to many other books and films for further study.

That said, there is certainly room for criticism. For example, some of Irving’s personal acts of solidarity like presenting her license along with her credit card at the grocery store or going out to get the paper fully dressed may or may not actually have the intended effect of calling out inequity. There’s also one part late in the book where, after recounting a personal story that she ties to cultural differences between herself and a Haitian student, she quotes Avatar’s “I see you” motif. Avatar is definitely the worst movie to be quoting in a book about examining white privilege.

That’s why I think this book should be viewed as a start, not an end.

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Goodreads Review–Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers In Exile

Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers In ExileWhy Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers In Exile by John Shelby Spong

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book made me wonder if I’m not as theologically progressive as I thought I was. It’s a challenging read–partially because of the author’s writing style and partially because of his views–and one that requires patience and open-mindedness. Spong spends the first half of the book essentially deconstructing Christianity before making much of effort to reconstruct it. I can easily see why he’s such a controversial figure. There were many times when even I became miffed at his arguments. Ultimately, I either agreed with his reconstructions or found them interesting, but his path to reaching those conclusions did not fully convince me, especially since he seems to go for the most conservative or traditional understandings of church practices to tear down in light of his conclusions. For example, when criticizing baptism, he makes a sweeping statement that baptism is salvation itself without at all mentioning that this is only the view in some denominations. Personally, I’ve never been part of a tradition that taught baptism as salvation.

More generally, I’m not convinced an external, theistic God cannot exist whatsoever. I don’t see why his framework cannot still have room for an external God, if God is truly beyond all things that human beings adequately define our limited logic and language. Maybe I don’t understand because I’m not a seminary student (which at times I felt I had to be in order to understand what the author was talking about).

This said, I think this book provides a vastly different perspective and some valid critiques of traditional Christianity that you’ll accept, reject, and/or mull over for a few hours.

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Goodreads Review–Her Eternal Moonlight

Her Eternal Moonlight: Sailor Moon's Female Fans In North America, An Unauthorized ExaminationHer Eternal Moonlight: Sailor Moon’s Female Fans In North America, An Unauthorized Examination by Steven Savage

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was one of the interviewees for this book, so I’ve known some of the details and findings for quite some time. Not only was it great to take part in such a project, but it was also fascinating to read about so many different experiences of Sailor Moon.

This is a light-hearted, casual read that serves as a great introduction to one of modern anime’s most fundamental series. The Sailor Moon generation is grown up now, making our own culture and telling our own stories. This book helps explain why. As our generation creates more comics and TV shows, I can only imagine that Sailor Moon’s influence will become even more prominent, and all the experiences captured in this book (mine included) reveal the starting points.

I recommend this book to anyone who wants to know more about Sailor Moon’s cultural impact. You don’t have to be familiar with the series at all–in fact, you may enjoy the book even more if you’re starting with little to no knowledge. Seasoned fans, on the other hand, will enjoy the throwbacks to Geocities and fansubbed VHS tapes.

Frequent tense-switching and wordy or passive sentences sometimes makes reading clunky, but the main points still come across clearly. Ultimately, this book is a collection of women telling their stories about their heroes, which are too often brushed aside.

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Is Head Hopping Necessary?

         Much of the writing advice I’ve seen over the past few years has heavily discouraged the practice of head hopping–or jumping around between POV characters. There are many valid reasons why. For example, most information revealed via head hopping can be done via the main POV. The writer just has to figure out a way for said POV to plausibly encounter that information. Head hopping is also, so they say, a mark of an amateur writer because it can easily become a crutch to avoid addressing larger structural problems. If a writer uses head hopping, they should do so in a clear pattern such as switching POVs every chapter or using some kind of star or dash symbol to clarify to the reader that the POV is switching. Finally, first-time authors should not expect that they can get away with head hopping (if they are traditionally published) because they have not yet shown that they understand the rules well enough to break them. Established authors are given more leniency since the publisher is already confident that they can get their money’s worth.

That’s the gist of the advice about and arguments against head hopping. I agree with most of it, actually, and often stick to one POV in my own work; however, I don’t think head hopping is something we should avoid for all eternity. After all, A Song of Ice and Fire and many other novels and series switch POVs all the time.

Like first-person present tense, head hopping is a stylistic choice that, in my opinion, only works for very particular types of stories, yet so many writers want to use it in their own. This makes total sense because film and television use head hopping all the time, and many writers (myself included), take inspiration from these visual mediums. Head hopping is actually a very basic, conventional structure for TV shows. Each episode of something has an A story, a B story, and perhaps a C story. Obviously, not all TV shows do this, but in that world, it’s certainly a fundamental way to structure stories.

But the written word is a different medium. While I can easily follow along a TV show or play that follows around different characters, I get confused if I’m well into a book and the POV switches in the middle of a paragraph. I experienced this recently when I was reading the Seventh Tower series by Garth Nix. Don’t get me wrong–I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve read of it so far, but there are some random POV switches in the middle of some chapters that I don’t think are necessary. In books two and three, he makes those switches clearer, but I still feel that what he reveals by venturing outside of Tal or Milla’s heads could have easily been done within the POV structure he had already established. Now, to be fair, he’s also writing for children and I can see how some children would read a chapter from the Codex’s point of view and then feel more engaged/excited later on knowing something that Tal doesn’t yet know and waiting for him to figure it out. I can see that Nix was maybe going for some dramatic irony there, although I still think Tal figuring out that the Codex is trying to talk to him would’ve been more exciting if we didn’t already know that the Codex could even do that. So, there are many instances of head hopping in Seventh Tower that I’m not sure are necessary.

A Song of Ice and Fire is different, in my opinion. While I’ve only read A Game of Thrones so far, it’s clear that each character’s own ambitions drive the story. Martin’s head hopping between different members of the Stark family reinforces the theme of familial loyalty. They also have their own separate storylines. In this case, the book’s structure has clear connections with a larger, conceptual point that the story is trying to make. Martin gives us a few non-Stark POVs, which one could easily say is setting a precedent not only for head hopping, but also house hopping. From what I gather, Martin chooses a different set of POV characters in each book and it seems to be largely designated by house. That’s understandably jarring and can certainly make the books difficult to follow, thus implying that maybe Martin’s head hopping isn’t necessary either. Even so, I think Martin’s use of head hopping is at least more clearly aligned with the themes he’s writing about and makes sense with the kind of story he’s trying to tell. In other books, this type of POV switching doesn’t seem to add anything or contribute to the theme. At the very least, Martin follows a consistent pattern in his head hopping. He changes POVs every chapter and never sooner. Furthermore, the POVs don’t repeat the same events or information, nor do they reveal major plot points in a way that erases tension.

So, I don’t think the question is “Should I use head hopping?” I think it’s better to consider if that type of structure is what the story needs or if that structure is somehow connected to the themes or characters in the story.

Unlearning Passive Gender

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It’s no secret that our society needlessly assigns gender to certain activities and products to the point where performing an action outside of what’s expected of your own gender somehow lessens the legitimacy of you existing as said gender.

I’ve seen countless examples of men feeling emasculated because they read books with “girly” covers. In 8th grade, I told a girl in my class that I was going to start learning to play guitar and she sneered at me, saying, “That’s a boy instrument!” Trans and non-binary people are constantly filtered through the gender binary based on their actions or clothing.

It seems that we’ve allowed actions to define or validate gender, but this passive experience of gender leaves room for panicking about the validity of gender identity. It gives these actions the power to support or refute our identity.

But actions and things do not and should not have this power. Individuals are the agents of their gender identities and passive gender leaves openings for that to be invalidated. If we change our understanding of gender identity to something that defines rather than something that is defined, then we can start to ungender the numerous gendered things we encounter every day.

Take the Twilight series as an easy example. As a romance YA novel, it is strictly seen as feminine. To read Twilight is to engage in a feminine activity and if your gender identity does not coincide with femininity, the act of reading it invalidates your gender. In simpler terms, a masculine man who reads and enjoys Twilight is made to feel like less of a man for participating in something that seemingly goes against his gender. This is a passive experience of gender in which the action is affecting the individual’s identity.

Active gender, however, says this: when the man reads and enjoys Twilight, the act of reading those books becomes masculine due to his gender identity. When performing a gendered action at any time, it is the identity of the action that changes, not the identity of the person.

Say a feminine woman is also sitting in the same room as the man, reading Twilight. Individually, her act of reading the books is feminine while his act is masculine. Collectively, the act of reading Twilight becomes both a masculine and feminine thing. Add a non-binary person to the mix; reading Twilight also becomes a non-binary act. Theoretically, we can keep adding all kinds of gender identities to the same gendered act so that the act cannot be strictly defined by any gender at all.

This also goes for acts that our society has deemed masculine (playing football, fixing cars, etc.). When non-masculine people perform these acts, they don’t become masculine. A feminine quarterback is performing a feminine act while playing football. Her masculine wide receiver is performing a masculine act. Neither act is lessened in any way by the other because it is each person’s identity that holds the power, separating a non-living thing such as football from gender. The game remains the same, but it doesn’t have the power to validate or invalidate anyone’s sense of their own gender.

Is someone who appears male wearing a dress? The dress has not made them feminine if that is not part of their gender identity. Wearing the dress is an act done by the particular gender that person identifies as. Is someone who appears female building a fence? That act does not make them masculine if that is not part of their gender identity.

Thinking of our genders as things that define our actions rather than allowing actions to define our genders allows us to be more confident in who we are and to stop feeling so insecure about ordering certain kinds of drinks, playing certain sports or instruments, or wearing certain clothes. When passive gender is in play, people are boxed into certain spaces and are taught to fear stepping out of those spaces because doing so will somehow strip them of their security in their gender. We unconsciously accept that certain actions define one of two genders and that is a very narrow way of looking at things.

Practically speaking, this framework won’t make huge changes, but it can give people the agency to validate their gender identity not in what they do or don’t do, but simply in who they are. Some actions may make some people feel more in touch with their gender and that’s perfectly fine. However, that action doesn’t need to define their gender for them.

Ultimately, the idea is to understand every gendered action as being defined by so many genders that one can no longer say “x is for boys” or “x is for girls.” There is more to life than those rigid definitions.

 

Special thanks to Kit for helping me bounce ideas around.