Reasons I Read bell hooks

Thanks to Startup Stock Photos

Thanks to Startup Stock Photos

I have books by bell hooks on my shelves, and I try to read something of hers every year. This has been a habit of mine.

I’ve cradled her words about writing, savoring her observations back when I started writing curricula when I was finishing seminary.

I’ve read and listened to her about relationships, about being a man in a relation to women, about her criticism of culture and how culture misshapes us to believe bad things. Of course bell hooks doesn’t use the phrase bad things. You have to pick up her work to see her turns of phrase.

Nonetheless, I read her because I don’t think I can be a good pastor without her influence upon my life, my work, and my practice of being a man who is a husband to Dawn, a father to Bryce, a pastor to people, and friend to women and men.

I think bell hooks is a great teacher of men on how to be a man-in-relationship. She’s been a splendid, hard-hitting, loving addition to my collection of “teachers through text” for more than ten years.

I heard her speak at Hampton University when I started college. I heard her again at Northwestern when I was in seminary. I have no idea what she said during those speeches. I remember rooms full of black and white people–mostly black–and I remember feeling at home in the presence of this woman I was a stranger to.

Her readings are that way. I feel embraced and checked, loved and corrected, and that marks a good writer, a loving one, particularly when you’re reading about love in response to patriarchy, race, gender, and oppression.

I just finished one of her earlier books, Sisters of the Yam. It’s a book about black women and self-recovery. I should say that all of bell hooks’ books are about black women, and all of them are about all the rest of us too.

Her work is accessible and generous, and if you love black women and if you (want to) love yourself, you should get any of her work. She blends her experiences of being a woman/daughter/lover/writer/sister/teacher/truth-teller, and she offers us inestimable lessons on being.

I am blessed with many mentors. I was reminded of that when putting together materials for my current clinical pastoral education exploits. I’ve named those men and women and each time I revise those types of documents, I’m reminded of the treasure they bring me. And there’s a section in my writings where I name mentors through words, teachers through texts, and bell hooks is in there. She should be one of your teachers too.

History of Pastoral Care in America

Thanks to Patrick Fore

Thanks to Patrick Fore

I finished E. Brooks Holifield’s A History of Pastoral Care in America: From Salvation to Self-Realization. The book has been a grounding or a re-grounding for me since my seminary days. As the title tells, it is a history of pastoral care and pastoral theology in the United States of America.

Holifield walks through several Christian theological lanes, surveying and summarizing some of the major figures in pastoral theology broadly and pastoral care more specifically. He intends the book to be narrow in the sense of covering Protestant pastoral counseling and ministry.

I found it broad in how it went about telling that history. The author named several primary voices in pastoral work, drawing out the thoughts and conceptions of thinkers and preachers and teachers who shaped the practical ministry of pastors and the academic institutions who trained ministers. Holifield wanted to show specifically how the “self” was revealed in history, how attitudes about the self developed in American religion, and wrote in that direction.

Any history that covers centuries has to be clear in its scope and intention. Holifield told of theological traditions and how they dealt with (i.e., defined, taught, and constructed meanings for) sin and spiritual development, two primary foci of pastoral care and those seeking such care throughout history. How a church defines sin directly relates to how a person in that church develops him/herself, whether they develop at all.

I appreciate learning names and dates that I was not thoughtful of. Holifield named preachers and leaders who framed debates that I know of but didn’t know the progenitors. One criticism is that the historical debates were framed around churches and communities which regularly disallowed the names and thoughts of non-white people.

That lack of voice is loud in Holifield, and I found myself wondering why he wrote about the influence of Jonathan Edwards but didn’t discuss with equal precision the thoughts and impact of Richard Allen or Alexander Crummell, the Episcopal priest who started what was essentially a society for African American intellectual and theoretical development. The omission is both honest from the historical perspective–since Allen wasn’t “invited to the debate” in his time–and discouraging because I don’t note Holifield walking through his work with the sense of loss with which I read him.

He presented a lot of philosophical material that made me feel informed, and he made the connections to keep me interested because he used several local church pastors to offer what could have been, simply, heady stuff. A central event in American history of the Protestantism Holifield writes about is the Great Awakening. He writes of the psychology of the Awakening and how with the best of intentions, leaders disagreed (meaning argued) about conversion and cure.

He notes the remark of one historian who says that the central conflict of the time was not theological but psychological, about opposing views of human psychology. Holifield points to how misleading that comment was, but it as helpful as it is misleading. As he says, “the theological context of any clerical assertion about psychology profoundly affected the interpretation of the psychological claims” and “the antagonists had far more in common than any such dichotomy might suggest.” Both are true then and seem true still.

The book covers material that can’t, or shouldn’t be covered in a review. There’s stuff about will and affections, comfort, cure, accountability, capitalism, and urban culture which I hardly would relay as urban in contemporary sense. He develops in solid detail the early therapeutic movements which we see but don’t see in pastoral counseling and therapy offices. He documents the beginnings of the Emmanuel Movement, explains less popular figures like Harry Stack Sullivan (whose work I appreciate), and points to how clinical focus moved from adjustment to insight.

He opened up for me a connection between mainstream culture in the US post-Civil War and the accompanying shifts of emphases in counseling and ministry and which established the primary contexts for the 20th century pastoral care movement. The same was true after World War 2. National violence, world violence directly impacted the needs for, methods of, and providers for pastoral care and mental health. Power and achievement and success were foci. Warlike metaphors abound from that time in clinical history, and the residuals of that period are still with us.

The last half of the book was much more relatable. He employed names and methods I have been introduced to, and the book did a good job unearthing the nuanced theories from which today’s approaches in pastoral theology stem. He dealt with the ever popular client-centered therapy and its large reception among pastors, as well as the derivative therapies thereafter. He mentioned early to mid-twentieth century pastoral heavy weights like Hiltner and Boisen and Oates and Wise.

I remember thinking about something one of my Bible professors said. Perhaps they are words I put in a professor’s mouth: the people who write our texts are the people whose stories stuck. Their stories endured. In other words, those we quote continue to be those we hear.

I felt Holifield reminding us of good historical stuff while also, in my view, choosing certain voices and neglecting others relative to a history of United States of American pastoral care. I certainly am developing a personal project to augment Holifield’s good work, thinking through whose voices are missing but shouldn’t be.

In summary, as good as this history is, it is short-sighted in the direction of white, male perspectives which is nothing surprising. Most of theological scholarship bends in that direction. Certainly most recognized histories bend there too. I could see more complementary texts coming alongside this book in order to illuminate the less-told stories of women and people of color. Indeed, I know the work of folks like Carroll Watkins-Ali and Archie Smith should be read with Holifield’s book.

Now, I’m on the hunt for another pastoral theological history that captures and enriches the story by adding the voices that Holifield didn’t include. That said, this quote, pages from the end, summarize well the good ground the author did cover and offers a kind of vista into the next places historically minded theological scholars may next dig:

Pastoral conversation–whether understood as counsel or as counseling–has never been a disembodied activity, isolated from social and cultural expectations and ideals. The strategies of pastoral discourse, the tone and vocabulary of private communication between the minister and the person in distress, always have borne the dim reflection of a public order. One begins to understand something about pastoral counseling by looking closely not only at prevailing conceptions of theology and psychology but at popular culture, class structure, the national economy, the organization of the parishes, and the patterns of theological education. And one must also look at the past.


From a Book I’m Reading

From the Dreamers & Doers at Death to the Stock Photo

Books grow out of the lives of the people who write them, of course. But they also grow out of the lives of the people they touch. The writer writes one truth; the reader brings to it another. When we read something that has meaning to us, we ourselves give it a meaning it never had before. If what we read resonates with nothing we ourselves know to be true, we call it fantasy.

From Joan Chittister’s Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope (pg. xiii)

Stories of God Question Dominant Directions

This summer I’m starting a practice of quoting or reviewing most of the books I read. I want to keep more of the materials with me, remember words, and appreciate what I’m learning, so I’m putting in a bit of effort to capture things in a few hundred words.

I just finished John Shea’s Stories of God. I was introduced to John Shea (in thought and writing, not in person) by my first clinical supervisor, Sister Barbara Sheehan at Urban CPE. She told us that according to John Shea, “Our feelings are the word of God to us.” I heard that and immediately liked John Shea.

This is the first of his books I’ve read. It develops the idea that when Christian people get together, we tell stories and that our stories are our ways of making sense of the world that God has created. Stories are “inevitable companions of people bounded by birth and death.” They are not incidental to life, but essential. Stories are the inescapable ways we talk about the Mystery that is itself inescapable.

Shea says that we relate to five relational environments as human beings, the first and most baffling of which is ourselves. The second environment is family and friends, those who are continually near us and with whom we have sustained interaction. The third and fourth are institutions in society and the nonhuman universe. The last environment is the relation with God or the Transcendent (or commonly Mystery in this book), which is known by diverse “acknowledgements of its presence.”

We are made for these environments, made by them. When it comes to Mystery Shea says that there is an immediate, intense desire for communion in us. “We perceive the dimension of Mystery” through feeling, and we perceive feeling through dialogue and communion. He says on p. 25,

The human person comes to be through dialogue with others. Out of this ongoing dialogue, people develop a sense of who they are and where they are going. People speak to each other words of acceptance and love, but they also speak painful words that call for conversion and new lifestyles.

Communion means love and acceptance; it implies freedom. But human communion goes beyond humanity. It facilitates our awareness of Mystery. In other words, being in relationships of love and acceptance open us to the One who accepts and loves us into freedom. At times this is not a delightful path but a dark one, filled with disenchantment.

But “Disenchantment is an experience of Mystery reasserting itself.” In darkness God comes. In pain we are freed from an idol’s hold upon us and we reach into Mystery. Shea does a lot to describe relationships with Mystery, gives it qualities that anyone “walking with God” can meaningfully relate to.

He writes the second part of the book into three types of stories: 1) Story of Hope and Justice; 2) Story of Trust and Freedom; and 3) Story of Invitation and Decision. When he speaks of stories and, I’d suggest, language broadly, he says:

Although the only way to the unknown is through the familiar, there is a danger. Titles and stories are not the reality. They only serve the reality. They are the way into the Mystery revealed in Jesus Christ, but they are not the Mystery.

For the first story, he discusses two ways of reading the stories of Mystery regarding justice and hope: an interventionist interpretation and an intentional interpretation. The first views historical activity as chaotic and separate from the mythical activity of God. An interventionist view sees all of life from the future, the eschaton, the moment when all things will be redeemed. Justice or hope look ahead to a future which frames life now. “It is this future, always-impending moment which shapes consciousness and directs activity.” Though it leads to a privatized eschatology and, perhaps, a privatized ethic, everything hinges on an invading God who comes after we’ve waited.

Waiting happens in lament, through provocation of the reluctant God to act, and by engaging in “presumptuous activity” that looking upon our works, “Christ will recognize as his own when at last he comes.” This interpretative view of God’s story is characterized by increasing anticipation, purposive waiting, patience, and practice that’s framed by a future vision. I see a lot of this view in practice in the church of my upbringing and the church I currently serve by the way.

The second way of seeing the story of Mystery is an intentional interpretation. This approach is about God’s reasons for interacting rather than God’s ways of interacting with the world. God’s values are present and experienced.

Rather than coming from “a future act of God,” this approach is from “God’s present nature.” God moves toward justice out of a heart of love and compassion for creation. Justice is “an act of respect” and, while its demands are absolute, its forms vary.

In the chapter “The Story of Trust and Freedom,” Shea works with the “combination of stories which attempts to uncover the meaning of Mystery which was revealed in Jesus,” particularly “Creation, Fall, Incarnation, Crucifixion, Spirit, and Church.” He discusses common renderings of those moments and then offers a compelling alternative of relating the symbolic elements of the events in terms of an “inner theological logic.”

He talks about dignity, friendship, and the common aims of Christian events which intend to underline the presence and indwelling of God in the world. He does considerable biblical and theological work in the chapter, touching upon the strong above-mentioned events, quoting folks like Walter Brueggamann, Leonard Bernstein, and biblical authors. Here’s a quote that may capture a chunk of the chapter’s themes, and I love that I hear echoes of James Cone:

The cross is the grounding of the Christian community, its symbol of realism, and its ongoing principle of critique. It is often noted that ecclesiology has its roots in Christology, but it is often overlooked that Christology brings us back to theology. The foundation of the Church is the experience of God symbolized in the crucified Christ. The cross reveals God’s self-giving love which frees us from our self-serving apathy. Out of God’s total acceptance comes the freedom and power to form community, to belong to each other in a life-giving way.

God has taken into divine reality all that is worst about us and turned it toward good. The law of the cross is not that evil has been eliminated but that it has been transformed into possibility…

The last chapter is about a story of Invitation and Decision. In this chapter Shea focuses his vision on the parables of Jesus.

Underlining what it means to proclaim and live the kingdom of God, the parables (and the scriptures as Shea writes) keep God as the plot of the stories. They press forward “invitations into the life of God” and don’t stop at allegorical interpretation where we have examples or particular paths to live. ” A vision of God active in human life is the home of the parables” (pg. 142).

Shea goes through interpretative methods relative to these central teachings of Jesus and leaves us hungry for participation in life with God. We are met with an invitation from and by Mystery to make decisions to neglect or jump into life with God.

He says that the parables focus on immediacy of action, rather than contemplation or morality. Response is critical. Decision is integral. A final quote to capture the sustained thought of this chapter will close my review well (pgs. 152-153):

Put in another way, every person has a faith, a set of presuppositions which are tested out in everyday life. If this foundational structure is too conscripted or self-centered, a crippling lifestyle develops. Attitudes and behaviors become destructive of both self and community. The depth of sin, therefore, is not in the destructive activity itself but in the consciousness which encourages and validates that activity…Parables take aim at these presuppositions and dominant directions. Their goal is subversion. They are meant to penetrate to the core of what we unquestionably hold and question it. In the realm of parable, nothing is safe.

“A Deeply Awkward Position” & Reading

The arts, entertainment, and books desks at every major publication and outlet are flooded with them, and an entire ecosystem of critics, producers, and editors is involved in compiling and signing off on these lists. Narrow reading is a less passive activity than some will claim.

As a writer and critic, I am not just bored with this conversation. I am sick of it. I have written these sentences before. I will write them again. Discussing diversity in publishing is the worst kind of Groundhog Day. What’s more, these lists put writers and readers of color in a deeply awkward position. We don’t want to take anything away from the writers who have been included on the list.

…The problem is and has always been the exclusion of writers of color and other marginalized writers who have to push aside their own work and fight for inclusion, over and over and over again.

Please read the full article here.

And make your own summer reading lists to look the beautiful, colorful world that the world is.