Holy Week Staff Picks

What We’re Reading at Commonweal
Rogier van der Weyden, The Magdalen Reading
Rogier van der Weyden, The Magdalen Reading

Over Holy Week, our staff likes to recommend the books we’re reading. This year, we're featuring a pair of novels, a collection of essays, an analysis of economics and Christian desire, mystical short stories, and a compendium of works on the undead. For even more recommendations, check out last year's posts too.

William T. Cavanaugh’s Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire
Regina Munch, Editorial Assistant

When Pope Francis visited the United States in September 2015, some warned against his “meddling” in American politics. The issue came up again during the 2016 presidential campaign, with additional concerns raised about a breach in the division between church and state. Jeb Bush dismissed Francis when asked about the encyclical Laudato si’: “I think religion ought to be about making us better as people, less about things [that] end up getting into the political realm.” The pope may have authority to weigh in on “moral” social problems such as abortion or gay marriage, but on issues that involve “amoral” scientific precision, such as economics, the environment, foreign policy, or tax law, his opinion is irrelevant. In short, as George Will claims, he should stick to what he knows.

In one respect, fair enough. Pope Francis has no training as an economist, political scientist, statistician, lawyer, or diplomat. Uninformed policy prescriptions, even with the best intentions, can be dangerous. But it’s a mistake to say that the application of ethics ends with “social” issues, as though fields such as economics are set apart from religious or moral concerns.

In Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, William T. Cavanaugh analyzes the inherent assumptions economics makes about human nature and justice, and systematically applies a Catholic understanding of the human person to economic discussions. Using “Christian resources to try to change the terms of the debate,” Cavanaugh insists that he is not condemning the “free market” as such, but focusing “our attention on concrete Christian attempts to discern and create economic practices, spaces, and transactions that are truly free.”

Being Consumed is organized into four sections, each treating a different pair of concepts that we tend to see as oppositional, but that a new vision of economics might question, integrate, or reconfigure. One section, “Freedom and Unfreedom,” questions the implicit assumptions our economic systems make about the nature of being free. Are we free, as we usually assume, when we have no restrictions on how we can act? Freedom, Cavanaugh counters, is not about having unlimited options or total control, but having the opportunity to choose things that make humans flourish rather than things that harm them. Right now, “there are no common ends to which our desires are directed.” We have no collective conception of what is good for individuals and communities. And so, “in the absence of such ends, all that remains is the sheer arbitrary power of one will against another.” Cavanaugh discusses how the decisions we make are not as free as we think: they are characterized by imbalances of power, lack of information, or inadequate options. “What is required is a substantive account of the end of earthly life and creation so that we may enter into particular judgments of what kinds of exchanges are free and what kinds are not,” he writes. Perhaps Catholic leaders do not have the expertise to dictate policy, but they are amply qualified to answer the questions of human flourishing that should inform policy.  

In other sections of the book, Cavanaugh explores “detachment and attachment,” “global and local,” and “scarcity and abundance.” He addresses our attachment to things but detachment from their production and social effects, the disposability of people and things, the homogenization of global tastes, and the inherent assumption economics makes about scarcity of resources. These issues are inescapable, Cavanaugh claims, if the Gospel account of human well-being is taken seriously. And if the Gospel is true, “the Christian vision of economics that animates this book is not impractical but may be in fact the most practical of all ways to live out the Christian life.”

It’s difficult to imagine Jeb Bush and Cavanaugh agreeing on economic issues. But one belief they do share: that, in Jeb’s own words, we can look to religion for “making us better as people.”

 

Shusaku Endo’s Silence
Ellen B. Koneck, Community & Events Manager

Fittingly, my Lent began with Silence.

It was inadvertent: I’d placed the famous 1966 novel on the syllabus for early March so that my students—sophomores and juniors in my Great Books in the Catholic Intellectual Tradition seminar—could spend time reading the assignment over their spring break.

Shusaku Endo, called “the Graham Greene of Japan,” had been on my must-read list for many years, but with more urgency recently, since I prefer to read a text before seeing a film’s adaptation of it. But there is no motivator (alas) like the fear of facilitating seminar discussion on an unfamiliar work; I finally cracked open the novel just as we entered the Lenten season.

Silence is the story of two 17th-century Portuguese Jesuit priests who travel to Japan during a period of intense Christian persecution. They have learned that their mentor, Fr. Ferreira, has apostatized, and they are incredulous that such a man would ever deny his faith. The priests—Fr. Rodrigues and Fr. Garrpe—are motivated by zealous belief and an earnest desire to serve the Japanese, but also, subtly, by pride, the desire for a glorious martyr’s death, and a fraught (perhaps inevitable) Messiah complex.

Expectations of glory are overturned, replaced by its cruel inverse: monotony. A complicated and haunting portrait of faith and doubt emerges. God does not give consolation; God does not confirm the work of the missionaries or the sacrifices of the Japanese martyrs. Indeed, God seems not only silent, but apathetic to the needs and the plight of the Christians in this land. After witnessing a gruesome martyrdom, Rodrigues writes, “I myself do not understand. Only that today, when for the glory of God Mokichi and Ichizo moaned, suffered and died, I cannot bear the monotonous sound of the dark sea gnawing at the shore. Behind the depressing silence of this sea, the silence of God…the feeling that while men raise their voices in anguish God remains with folded arms, silent.”

Reading Silence with forty college students enriched my own experience with the novel. Some of them seemed taken aback by their own frustration with Endo’s nonresponsive God, and worked hard to draw meaning out of God’s silence rather than accept the alternative. For others, it was the first time they had permission to wonder about God’s assumed goodness—and even those initial queries were blunted: God sort of, kind of seems to be acting like a jerk… is that okay to say? (at which point I like to remind them that the Book of Job is in the canon). But the greater shock for them, more than the positing of doubt about God’s benevolence, was that someone could brazenly question God’s existence. A general apathy about religion and God overall seems more acceptable to them than a believer questioning the tenets of his or her faith. Doubt is a greater scandal than disbelief.

I wondered about this. I know from experience (as I suspect do many of you) that Christian theological precepts or abstract comforts—like Heaven, or the Communion of Saints—can take on a distant, cartoonish absurdity in the face of tragedy or monotony, and that doubting suddenly feels easier. Endo masterfully renders the slow, lurking nearness of nihilism that can catch even the most pious by surprise. But the temptation to doubt—the urge to laugh at the prospect of God or give in to the allure of a meaningless universe—are in church settings paid less attention than temptations rooted in discrete acts: one angry thought, two white lies, and so on. Theologians sometimes interpret the first sin in this way: doubt that God had humanity’s best interest in mind when forbidding the fruit of one particular tree; doubt, in effect, about the benevolence and justice of God. This doubt—especially in Endo’s telling of it—is the fundamental temptation. Perhaps it is the primacy and proximity of doubt that makes it feel so scandalous to acknowledge. 
 

Susan Orlean’s The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup
Kate Massinger, Commonweal Intern

When I read this book on the train, I catch other passengers peering at its cover. Susan Orlean’s 2001 anthology, The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup, is eye-catching, bound in glossy mustard. On the front cover is a glamour shot of the author, wearing a feathery black dress and clutching a velvet cape. Orlean has orange hair, red lips, and a Blue Steel pout. She’s posed as a matador, and her eyeliner looks great.

But Orlean herself isn’t the bullfighter—actually, Cristina Sanchez is. Sanchez, a professional fighter who spends nights in Madrid rings, is one of the many subjects Orleans has profiled over her decades as a journalist. Bullfighter is an anthology of these portraits, twenty-two in all, with Cristina’s story used for the title.

Many of Orlean’s characters live in New York—Jill, the powerhouse real estate agent who knows rents for every brownstone; Kwabena, the yellow-cab driver who’s also Ashanti royalty—but not all. One of my favorite profiles covers a pack of Maui surfer girls, all crowned with long, salty hair, eating pounds of teriyaki chicken and charging into waves. Orlean writes about famous people—the one-hit pop star known simply as Tiffany—and everyday folks—a clown called Silly Billy. The profiles are heavy on dialogue, bright with colors and tastes, quickly drawing readers into the worlds of girl bands, or high school basketball teams, or small-town newsrooms. The writing is playful; it revels in the diversity of human life. The book’s subtitle is My Encounters with Extraordinary People; the description fits. 

It’s also appropriate that Bullfighter’s front cover features a portrait of Orlean. As much as this collection is about other people, it’s also largely (if subtly) about this vibrant, peppy New Yorker staff writer, snatching up quotes and smells and sounds and throwing them onto her pages for our entertainment. There’s a whimsy to Orlean’s approach. She writes a portrait of fifth-grader Colin Duffy titled “The American Man, Age Ten;” it begins, “If Colin Duffy and I were to get married, we would have matching superhero notebooks.” Another piece, “Short People,” contains sixteen sketches of people who are, well, short—including a high-profile architect, an Italian ice entrepreneur, a button-shop owner, a painter, a dog musher, a ceiling-fan salesman, and a fish-shop window dresser. New York blooms with possibility under Orlean’s pen. She is a lesson in attention to detail, and good humor, and the rewards of healthy curiosity.

And yet as I read this collection, this week before Easter, I’ve been ruminating on the danger of seeing lives as literary devices, opportunities for play. Occasionally, Orlean makes her “extraordinary people” so extraordinary that they come off as sideshow curiosities, or caricatures, or devices in a well-crafted plot. I probably wouldn’t have felt this so acutely, except that one of Orlean’s profiles features my hometown of Happy Valley, Oregon. Orlean’s subject is Tanya Harding, who also grew up in the Portland-metro area. Tanya skated at the mall where I got my ears pierced and drank Jamba Juice.

As I read the profile, I was annoyed. “This isn’t what it’s like!” Of course, Orlean wrote this piece decades ago, before I was born. I’m also an Oregon enthusiast. I’m biased. But I still couldn’t help but feel that Orlean’s descriptions were less than generous. In telling Tanya’s seedy story, she portrays my hometown as a place of trailers and weeds and strip malls, drizzly and “haphazard and disjointed.” She quotes female members of the Tanya Harding fan club, emphasizing their decaled nails. “‘Trailer trash is what they call people out here...Well, I live in a very non-scum neighborhood,’” proclaims one woman. Orlean seems to be using the quote ironically.

Does Susan Orlean’s profile on Tonya Harding slip into pity, or curdle into scorn?

Sure, journalists can’t tiptoe around their subjects’ feelings. Good profiles should never be hagiography. Orlean’s got some things right. It does rain a lot in Happy Valley. We have our share of weeds. But I was looking for a touch more trees and sky and mountainous beauty. An attempt to understand these women and their fandom, rather than to use them as symbols for suburban dissatisfaction and jealousy. Depending on how you read it, the profile slips into pity, or curdles into scorn.

Orlean is at her best when she becomes mystified or enraptured by her subjects, writing at their level rather than above them. A lesson for me this Holy Week: to couch my empathy, for my neighbor, the stranger, the least of these, in both wonder (over particularity) and humility (over how little I can know about their lives).

 

Edwidge Danticat’s The Farming of Bones
Rebecca Collins, Commonweal Intern

The subject of “borders” is rarely out of the headlines. But beyond reports on building a wall and the increase in ICE raids, I search for stories on how division and displacement affect the human psyche, physically and spiritually. This recently led me to revisit Edwidge Danticat’s 1998 novel, The Farming of Bones. It traces the flight of Amabelle, a Haitian-born woman, from her work as a servant in the Dominican Republic into safety in Haiti during the 1937 Parsley Massacre. The slaughter of thousands of Haitians by Dominican soldiers and civilians under Rafael Trujillo was so named because the killers, often unable to distinguish Dominicans from Haitians by sight, forced people to pronounce the Spanish word for parsley, “perejil.” Anyone pronouncing it with a Creole accent lost their life. The Farming of Bones may not make for uplifting reading, but it lays bare the individual toll of xenophobia and nationalism better than any novel I have read.

Amaballe is no stranger to loss, having as a child witnessed her parents drowning, but her anguish is compounded in adulthood through the violence she suffers in fleeing the massacre. She inhabits liminal spaces of emotion and spirituality that provide a route not out of pain but through it. Her life increasingly becomes a search for missing names and faces, with little hope of success or closure. “He scatters within my reach,” she says of one missing person, “like a stream of dust caught in a beam of sunlight.”Amabelle’s home is in her relationships—to her former mistress Senora Valencia, to her fiancé Sebastien, and to her dead parents. She acknowledges, “I had never desired to run away [from the Dominican Republic]… ‘where to?’, ‘who to?,’ was always chiming in my head.” She accepts Sebastien’s sense of the role they share with other Haitian laborers in the Dominican Republic: as “vwayajè, wayfarers,” people who travel to find home with one another.

It is in the very utterance of the Creole word for parsley—pesi—that Amabelle finds her voice and sense of belonging. But she makes clear that “I knew as well how to say ‘pesi’ as to say ‘perejil.’” And in so doing, she affirms her status as a woman who breaks the boundaries between Haitian and Dominican, and whose home lies somewhere between these distinctions.

That the novel is set near the Dajabón River, the border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, reinforces this. (It is also where Amabelle’s parents and, later, a fellow Haitian fleeing the massacre, drown.) But the river embodies less a distinction of categories than an encounter between them—in other words, Amabelle’s home. Seeking consolation, a feeling of closeness to “Sebastien’s cave, my father’s laughter, my mother’s eternity,” Amabelle feels “cradled by the current, paddling like a newborn in a washbasin.” “Heaven,” she says, “is the veil of water that stands between my parents and me,” or in the boundary between pesi and perejil.

Edwidge Danticat helps us see the simultaneous frailty and strength of human existence

Danticat’s prose simultaneously unsettles and soothes, as Amabelle’s narrative is told in part through dream and in part through memory, with the distinction between the two blurred. In writing on one of the most traumatic events of an unspeakably violent century, Danticat confronts a still open wound. But in so doing, she helps us see the simultaneous frailty and strength of human existence.

 

The Penguin Book of the Undead & Bright Magic: Stories by Alfred Döblin
Dominic Preziosi, Digital Editor

How to explain such serendipitous confluences in reading? Mid-way through Lent I stumbled on a conversation with author George Saunders in a year-old issue of Image. He speaks with appealing persuasiveness about the connections he finds between the Catholicism he grew up with, the type of storytelling to which he’s committed himself, and the Buddhism he currently practices. At one point he pauses to reflect on studies of people who “experience communication” with the dead or dying—family, friends, even hospice workers, and far more numerous than he’d thought—and wonders whether we should pay more attention to such things. “I find all of this fascinating and hopeful—indicating as it does that we are not just these bodies, and that the truth, whatever it is, is not limited to what we can perceive and prove.”

Saunders leavens things with a joke—“Of course, you have to be careful, or you may find yourself in some small cult that believes penguins are actually aliens”—but the comment nevertheless jumped out. Maybe because I was already attuned to these matters from my simultaneous reading of a pair of works dealing in the “abiding interest among the living in the fate of the dead.”

One is the book from which that quoted phrase comes: The Penguin Book of the Undead: Fifteen Hundred Years of Supernatural Encounters, edited by Scott G. Bruce, director of the Center for Medieval and Early Modern Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. True, there’s the unfortunate luridness of the title and flap copy, matched alas by the image on the cover: a hoard of hollow-eyed, Orc-like ghouls staring up at the reader from a darkened pit. But get beyond the broadness of the marketing and there’s the material Bruce has collected: Excerpts from dozens of stories, texts, and treatises, from the classical period on up to the Elizabethan era, each reflecting humanity’s helpless urge to understand mortality, the soul, and eternity. The book is structured as a survey—Homer gives way to Pliny; Hebrew scriptures to Matthew; the Lenten visions of Louis the German to the miracles cataloged by Peter the Venerable of Cluny; obscure Cistercian monks to slightly less obscure Capuchins—and so may not appeal to the expert in a given field. Yet for the general-interest reader proceeding with dogged linearity, it yields both contemplation-worthy and occasionally unsettling rewards, while some of the juxtapositions reveal Bruce’s own knowing sense of humor. One such pairing: Augustine’s sniffing rejection of the idea that the living can communicate with the departed, from On the Care to Be Taken for the Dead, followed by selections from Gregory the Great’s Dialogues affirming that intercessory prayer can ease the suffering of Christian souls in the afterlife. This is conveyed most vividly in the tale of a sinful monk who upon his death is buried in a dung heap for punishment, but is after thirty days of Masses said in his name relieved of his torment and brought fully into communion.

The departed are a calamitous bunch in Alfred Döblin’s “Traffic with the Beyond,” a novella-length piece appearing in the first English-language collection of this German modernist’s stories, Bright Magic. The setup: a series of séances is held to learn from a murder victim the identity of his killer. But over the ensuing evenings, more and more of the countless “spirits” from throughout time begin to horn in on things, imperiously pronouncing on the ridiculousness of earthly life while simultaneously revealing the endless emptiness of their own unearthliness. The proceedings devolve into low comedy as the story moves toward a conclusion worthy of a hotel farce. Which makes a certain kind of sense: Döblin, already long known for his novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, had fled Nazi Germany for Hollywood and briefly worked as a screenwriter for MGM. At this time he was also in the process of converting to Catholicism, a decision that made little sense to friends like Thomas Mann and Bertold Brecht, and, later, to those who counted him as an influence, including Nobelist Günter Grass: “He had become a Catholic; more than that, with the uncompromising vigor of a convert to Catholicism, he sees his own work as nothing but vanity… The fantast of reason, the cool impartial observer of driven masses and contradictory reality… had been beaten by faith.” The stories in Bright Magic range from the macabre to the merely strange, from the grotesque to the religious (see “Immaculate Conception” and “The Canoness and Death”). I couldn’t help but wonder if Saunders, who in works like “Sea Oak” and Lincoln in the Bardo blazes new trails in exploring the spaces between life and the afterlife, might feel an affinity.

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