Brett Busang: ‘Good Books Turn Our Thinking Along Grooves That Aren’t Well-Established’

"Water Oak" (Capitol Hill) by Brett Busang

My friend Brett recently sent me a note commenting on my book Who Killed Donte Manning? Brett’s an amazing artist. I’ve got one of his paintings at home and another hangs on loan in the Sojourners offices. It’s humbling to have someone reflect your work back to you and put it into their own intimate context. Thanks, Brett!

“You sure packed a lot into that little volume.  I found myself re-reading passages I did not grasp as perfectly as I might have.  The reason?  Like the richest of anything, they were multi-faceted and agreeably complex.

Good books turn our thinking along grooves that aren’t very well-established because they just haven’t been used.  I’m very grateful for the re-routing.

I’d also like to compliment you on the weaving-together of many strains: ancient history, holy scripture, urban planning, urban warfare, urban ritual.  A man prays in a “profane” space.  A little boy falls victim to a retaliatory shooting.  God is repudiated by men who want to centralize power.  Over time, power means military might – but also coffee, which is available in a “socially responsible” atmosphere that has nonetheless supplanted gardens.  Grown men groove to the gospel as they buff and shine their cars.  More importantly, the mother of a victim embraces the victim’s friends.  It’s good to be reminded of the momentary paradise most of us can grasp after an okay afternoon (or appalling shootout.)

I’m going to read it again tomorrow.  I think I missed too much the first time.

I spent the last week in a small Massachusetts town.  While there, I looked after a friend, made pencil drawings, and read about post-Katrina New Orleans.  I asked this friend to drive me along the Merrimac River, along which Thoreau had travelled as a young man.  I was utterly bewitched – and am glad I had to return shortly afterwards.  I would have otherwise made plans to move there.  Not a good idea.  I believe, like you, that age-old dramas are enacted in our “evil” cities and feel I should bear witness to at least some of them.  Not like you, of course – but in my more cowardly fashion.

Thanks for writing the book.  It provided a brand-new context for my own ruminations about half-hearted justice and wasted lives.  It invested seemingly fragmentary events with a sense of urgency.  And it charged the familiar with grace and meaning.”

Mirabai Starr: Berger’s ‘Jewel of a Book’

Here’s a shout out to Mirabai Starr in thanks for her lovely Amazon review of Who Killed Donte Manning?:

In her jewel of a book, Who Killed Donte Manning, Rose Marie Berger engages in the ancient prophetic tradition of calling us to bear witness to the “terrible beauty” of the sacred breaking into our ordinary lives, allowing it to transform ourselves and our communities. Through Berger’s finely tuned biblical lens, we are invited to see the whole of the human condition, from the violent death of an innocent child to the tenderness of a Muslim pizza driver kneeling in prayer as the sun sets over the streets of the inner city, as an opportunity to offer our prayers for the redemption of the world. —Mirabai Starr

Mirabai is the author of several excellent translations, including Dark Night of the Soul by John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila: The Book of My Life, and The Interior Castle.

With Sounds True press, she’s also released a set of 6 small books of devotions, prayers, and wisdom drawing on the riches of Teresa of Avila, Francis of Assisi, Michael the Archangel, John of the Cross, Hildegard of Bingen, and Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Cartoonist Ward Sutton Reviews Lewis Hyde’s New Book “Common as Air”

Lewis Hyde’s seminal work The Gift argues against the historical oddity of privatized property and the idea of subjecting creativity to the market economy. He asserts that artists and church folks are two communities that still practice a “gift economy” in the U.S.

More than 25 years later, Hyde’s newest book Common as Air revives the principles of a “public commons,” especially as it applies to the ideas of “intellectual property,”  digital rights management, and open source software.

In his inimitable graphic style, Ward Sutton reviews Hyde’s new book. See the first panel below and click though to see the whole graphic review.

Donte Manning: ‘Great to Use with Social Justice Classes’

Here’s a very heartening note I got from my Aunt JB today on my book Who Killed Donte Manning?

“Regarding your book, thanks for writing it.  I got 6 copies of it and passed them out to my sisters and a couple of friends. You have given us much to think about.  I will give a copy to the Chair of our Department to read. I think it would be great to use it in our Social Justice Classes. Your study guide in the back of the book is excellent for discussion. So a great big congratulations to you! You should be delighted to be published!”–Aunt JB

Everyone needs a cheering section! And I want to give a special shout out to Joe Ross who wrote the study guide at the back of the book.

If anyone wants to set up a study group, I’d be glad to Skype in for a session or answer e-mail questions from the group.

Review: “Thomas Merton: A Life in Letters”

merton life in letters coverPatrick O’Connell over at The Merton Seasonal asked me to review Thomas Merton: A Life in Letters for the Spring 2009 magazine.

It was a great chance to exchange emails with two of the great Merton scholars and editors of Merton’s letters Bill Shannon and Christine Bochen. I was particularly interested in looking at the “American-ness” of Merton’s correspondence. Aside from the theological or spiritual content, I wondered how Merton’s letters fit in the genre of American literature.

Below is an excerpt from my review:

While it is necessary to place the letters in this collection in the context of Merton’s own life and in the context of Merton’s overall legacy, it is also important to examine Merton’s letter-writing art in the context of 20th-century American literature.

Literary sociologists David Barton and Nigel Hall argue in Letter Writing as a Social Practice that letter writing is a genre unto itself and deserves to be studied as enthusiastically as poetry or the novel. Additionally, they posit that “many contemporary genres have their origins in letters” (Barton and Hall, 4). The new research into letter writing raises several questions regarding Thomas Merton, who was, as Shannon and Bochen put it, “one of the most prolific and provocative letter writers of the twentieth century” (vii).

How will Merton be critiqued as a letter-writer per se? William Shannon said in the same personal e-mail that “Merton was an amazingly good letter-writer.” How will critics analyze Merton’s letter-writing genius as compared to his innovation and skill as a poet or his daring analysis as an essayist? British novelist, satirist, and literary critic Evelyn Waugh, who prepared the manuscript of Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain for a British audience, so much admired Merton’s skill that he advised Merton to “put books aside and write serious letters and to make an art of it” (ix). Of course, Merton didn’t set book-writing aside, but he did continue over his life to perfect his letter-writing craft.

More importantly, are Merton’s letters derivative of his political essays, theological and monastic treatises, autobiographical writings, poetry, and intellectual critiques or, as Barton and Hall prompt, do all these genres have their genesis in Merton’s letters instead? Often the personal correspondence of a well-known personality are collected and published in order to provide enthusiasts with an “inside look” at the “personal” life that would otherwise be hidden. The publication of personal letters can have a tinge of voyeurism. I would argue that it is in Merton’s letters that we find the foundations of his published works. The letters show him testing ideas, crafting opinions, grounding his analysis, playing with images and phrasing, sorting and sifting the essential components of his life story. From this perspective, Merton’s letters (and journals) are the seedbed for his completed works in other genres, rather than the frosting on his “real” work.

Equally important in recognizing Merton’s brilliance in the genre of letter-writing is understanding the “American-ness” of Merton’s correspondence project. Elizabeth Hewitt, author of Correspondence and American Literature, 1770-1865 (Cambridge University Press, 2004), points out that in 1831 Alexis de Tocqueville remarked that the marvel of American political ideology was the seeming ability to strike a balance between individual liberty and a celebration of democratic principles (4). “Letters emphasize the singularity of a particular letter-writer,” writes Hewitt, “even as they strive to position the recipient in an idealized relationship with the writer. They emphasize solidarity and individualism at once,” and thus reconcile a balance of power that is fundamentally American.”

Read the whole essay: Thank You For Your LetterREVIEWFINAL

Michael Moore: Catholic of the Year?

capitalism_a_love_storyLGEFilmmaker Michael Moore’s critique of capitalism is filled with respectful images and ideals from the Catholic Church, writes Tony Stevens-Arroyo in The Washington Post‘s column On Faith.

Stevens-Arroyo, a professor of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies at Brooklyn College and scholar at City University of New York, looks at Moore’s favorable light on his lived experience with Catholic priests, the human face Moore puts on those suffering under unjust economic structures, the solutions-oriented approach taken by Moore to structural sin, and the emphasis he puts on a vibrant democracy vs rapacious capitalism.

Here’s an excerpt:

Should Michael Moore be named “Catholic of the Year”? Some people love his films and some hate them: but his newest film, “Capitalism: A Love Story,” provokes such passion on either side that — on that count alone — it becomes a tribute to his skill as filmmaker. Avoiding a film review here, let me offer reasons for considering “Capitalism” a special kind of Catholic achievement. …

Admittedly, Moore’s style borders on buffoonery, but his message is nonetheless important. I admire the Catholic currents of social justice in this film. And just like the feast days of Halloween and All Saints Day follow each other in the calendar; maybe Michael Moore is “Clown of the Year” and “Catholic of the Year” at the same time.

Read the whole article here.

Just When You Thought It Was Safe to Go Back to High School: “Jennifer’s Body”

jennifers-bodyJennifer’s Body (“She’s evil … and not just high school evil.”) is a new horror/slasher flick written by Diablo Cody (Juno and The United States of Tara — who also happens to be Catholic). It’s got all the blood, gore, cannibalism, revenge on teenage hormones, that we’ve come to expect from the genre. But don’t take that as a recommendation.

If you are a closet fan of American horror/thriller films and what they uncover about our social psyche, I suggest reading Jennifer’s Body and Why I Like Buffy’s Body Better by W. Scott Poole. He’s an associate professor in history at the College of Charleston and has written several books dealing with American religion, race, and popular culture. His latest is Satan in America: The Devil We Know.

According to to Poole, the dialogue in Jennifer’s Body is slick and ironic, but falls short of overturning the tables of misogyny in the genre. Even though writer Cody says she wanted to subvert the genre by inserting a sort of feminist “Trojan Horse” into the script. (See NYT‘s review by Michelle Orange.) However, J’s B is nothing compared to Joss Whedon’s 7-season TV hit Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (I’m a huge fan. See my article Damnation Will Not Be Televised.)

I’m always glad to find smart interpretations of Buffy’s mythic themes, feminism, and deep religious narrative. Here’s an excerpt from Poole’s review comparing Buffy with Jennifer’s Body:

Religion often goes to the horror movies, taking with it a raft of cultural baggage. In 1968, Rosemary’s Baby incorporated the Devil, anxieties over feminism, and the controversy over birth control. A few years later, The Exorcist served up an unsettling combination of religious conservatism, the perceived dangers of single-parent families, and the power of adolescent sexuality. Jennifer’s Body is the latest offering in this genre. …

I prefer to see powerful religious and cultural paradigms more thoroughly subverted than this. Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer—in which another high school cheerleader is revealed as “the Chosen One” who slays monsters rather than becoming one—provides a good example.

Buffy’s seven seasons did more than simply reverse the formula that makes women the predators rather than the prey. Whedon and his writers and directors created a truly nuanced and complex hero, an archetypal figure in the same sense that Beowulf and Achilles represents the heroic. Rather than perform a parody of female identity (or simple revenge fantasy), Buffy instead embodied both the limitations of human ability and the struggles against darkness that are the price of transcendence.

David Anderson’s ‘The Things of This World’

anderson_200_01Friend and fellow poet David E. Anderson has just posted an excellent review essay The Things of This World.

David, who is senior editor at Religion News Service, touches on several books examining the religious sensibilities of famous poets, including Naming Grace by Mary Catherine Hilkert; The World’s Hieroglyphic Beauty by Peter Stitt; The New Oxford Book of Christian Verse edited by Donald Davie; and Cheryl Walker’s God and Elizabeth Bishop.

He also looks at the wonderful Welsh poet R.S. Thomas who died in 2000. Here’s the opening to David’s essay:

For many poets, believers and nonbelievers alike, it is possible to talk about the religious imagination they bring to apprehending reality and describing the world.

Theologically, Christianity provides a language—and some doctrinal and historical metaphors or benchmarks—for two such imaginations: the sacramental and the dialectical. The first is broadly linked to Catholic ways of seeing and understanding God and the world, and the second, equally broadly and generally, to a Protestant sensibility.