Religion Booknotes

Looking Before and After
Testimony and the Christian Life
Alan Jacobs
Eerdmans, $14, 124 pp.

Within the past generation there has been a renewed interest in narrative theology, which is derived, philosophically, from the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, and practiced with great skill by the Duke theologian Stanley Hauerwas, among others. It is on the basis of this development that Alan Jacobs constructed the Stob Lectures he presented at Calvin College in 2006.

Jacobs, a well-known Evangelical writer, is professor of English at Wheaton College in Illinois. He devoted the bulk of the lectures, collected in Looking Before and After, to the recovery of memory in the telling of stories. The key figure in this project is St. Augustine; the key text his meditation on memory in book 10 of the Confessions.

At a certain level, Christianity itself is radically narrative in character. After all, at the apex of the Christian life is the Eucharistic celebration, which tells a story in the Liturgy of the Word and acts it out in the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The Christian life is about how one’s own story is shaped by the Gospel story so that it may contribute to the all-inclusive story of God’s redemptive love.

As Jacobs observes in his opening lecture, the word “testimony”—as in, “to give a testimony”—is a standard part of the language of contemporary Evangelicals, but its Christian use goes back to the Bible. It is used in John 1:19: “This is the testimony given by John.” Jacobs points out that giving testimony to religious faith involves both remembering and, inevitably, some forgetting. As we construct the narratives of our own lives, other stories intrude to give shape and purpose to our own. The pressure of these other stories changes the way we interpret the events of our own lives. For Christians, the tug of Christ’s story is irresistible, drawing our memory and self-understanding toward itself.

As I read this elegantly written little book, I could not help but be struck by the fact that however enriching (and, humanly speaking, inevitable) personal narrative is, and however much the theologian can learn by attending to narrative, one must finally move beyond narrative to reach further, deeper questions. Narrative is the point of departure for the theologian, and stories are themselves a kind of interpretation. But they, too, need to be interpreted; they do not interpret themselves. When Jesus told stories, he invited his listeners to ask him, or themselves, questions that pointed beyond the stories: What does that mean? Toward what do these words point? Am I to take what it means seriously?

Jacobs’s lectures do not set out a systematic narrative theology; he did not mean them to. What he has done instead is to outline beautifully and with some theoretical depth why it is that, in the words of the old hymn, we “love to tell the story.”


The Collected Letters of St. Teresa of Avila: Volume Two
Translated by Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD
ICS Publications,  $14.95, 661 pp.

The Carmelite Kieran Kavanaugh has spent years assembling the once widely scattered correspondence of St. Teresa of Ávila. In this second and final volume of Teresa’s correspondence, Kavanaugh supplies a note at the head of each letter summarizing its contents and telling readers where the original is to be found. Footnotes provide information about the persons and events mentioned in the letters, and at the end of the volume there are capsule biographies of the dramatis personae, as well as a thorough index. Like everything published by the Institute for Carmelite Studies (ICS), this book is almost scandalously cheap, given the value of the material it contains. We now possess, thanks to the ICS and the work of Fr. Kavanaugh, all of Teresa’s writings, including her letters, in four compact volumes.

Anyone who imagines that great mystics like Teresa spend all their time in a quiet cell rapt in prayer will be surprised by these letters. Teresa was a very busy woman. Her letters deal with family matters: the fecklessness of one of her brothers, the patrimony of another. They deal with the practical management of her burgeoning communities: debts to be paid, clerics to pacify, decisions about whom to admit as postulants. They offer advice, criticism, and support to her fellow nuns. A single letter will often deal with several issues, and Kavanaugh’s notes help us keep track of them. This can be all the more difficult because much of Teresa’s correspondence was written in haste, and because we no longer possess most of the letters to which she was responding.

Those who don’t read Spanish owe a great debt to Fr. Kavanaugh, who has translated and edited not only all of Teresa’s works, but also the works of her friend and fellow Carmelite, St. John of the Cross.


The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman, Apostle of Abolition
Thomas P. Slaughter
Hill & Wang, $22, 464 pp.

John Woolman’s journals are surely among the most powerful examples of American spiritual writing. Begun in 1746 when Woolman was twenty-six years old and continued until his death from smallpox in 1772, they are a testament not only to the luminous faith of the New Jersey–born Quaker but also to his courageous stand against slavery—a position strengthened by his profound piety. Woolman tried to persuade his fellow Quakers (some of whom depended on slave labor) to oppose slavery, and gave up running a store because he thought it involved him in commerce connected to the slave economy. His opposition to slavery was so consistent that he would not wear clothes dyed with indigo, which was produced with slave labor. He became famous for his white clothes and his patriarchal beard.

In The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman, Apostle of Abolition, Thomas Slaughter discusses the role of Quakers in prerevolutionary America, the debates about slavery among Quakers, and the intellectual background of Woolman’s writing. In addition to his journals, Woolman wrote several treatises for the edification of his fellow Quakers. Those writings, which Slaughter describes well, were hardly naive; despite little formal education, Woolman was a sharply critical moralist.

What I found most interesting in Slaughter’s book is the information he provides about Woolman’s reading. That Woolman knew the work of John Locke is not surprising. That he was a reader of Jacob Boehme makes sense given his own mystical bent. But it was helpful to learn that Woolman, like many other seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Protestants, was a keen student of Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ. The sanitized version of this famous work that Woolman read omitted the fourth book, which was considered too redolent of late-medieval Eucharistic piety. Woolman also knew the work of Jeanne-Marie Bouvier de la Motte Guyon, a quietist who advocated passive prayer. Catholic authorities were suspicious of this practice, but it would have been a natural fit for an eighteenth-century Quaker. Slaughter describes in detail the varie-ties of thought and practice within the Society of Friends, and puts this Quaker history into the larger context of religious ideas in the eighteenth century.  

A century after Woolman’s death, the Hoosier poet John Greenleaf Whittier published an edition of Woolman’s journals with an appreciative introduction; later Charles Eliot included them in the “five-foot shelf” of Harvard Classics. But today they are not as well known as they ought to be. Perhaps Slaughter’s illuminating book will spur people to go back to Woolman’s great work, where they will encounter a personality as close to Francis of Assisi as one could find on American soil. Those who want a taste of Woolman’s writing can find a slightly abridged version of his journal in the Paulist volume Quaker Spirituality: Selected Writings (1984), which includes generous selections from the whole Quaker tradition, from George Fox down to our own century.


Standing in the Light
My Life as a Pantheist
Sharman Apt Russell
Basic Books, $16.95, 320 pp.

Sharman Apt Russell, the author of Standing in the Light, is also a Quaker, although it would come as a shock to old John Woolman to learn that at Russell’s Quaker meeting in New Mexico it is considered a bit gauche to mention the name of Jesus Christ. There are, of course, many tendencies in the Society of Friends, and Quakers have never been accused of doctrinal rigidity. Russell’s Quakerism has a certain New Age flavor.

She is, as her book’s subtitle warns us, a self-professed pantheist, and in this book she provides a kind of intellectual family tree for pantheism: the Pre-Socratics, especially Heraclitus; Marcus Aurelius, who persecuted Christians; Giordano Bruno; Baruch Spinoza; Walt Whitman; the American Transcendentalists; Chuang Tzu; and so on. Russell intertwines biographical sketches of these figures with passages about her life in New Mexico as a parent, wife, teacher, and activist. She also writes about her deep commitment to environmental issues, especially her fascination with “deep ecology.” Her keen observations about the natural world remind me of the work of Annie Dillard, a Catholic convert. The parts of the book I most enjoyed have to do with the flora and fauna of the small patch of New Mexico where Russell lives.

 Russell seems to be an anima naturaliter religiosa who has spent her whole life waiting for, and standing in, the light (to borrow a Quaker phrase). She has allowed herself to be persuaded that “pantheism” is the best way to describe this religious experience. One does not wish to begrudge her her satisfaction with the term, but it does seem a little sad that someone who has read so much, sought so carefully for meaning, and appears so committed to an ethical and socially responsible life should also be so complacently unknowledgeable about the Christian tradition from which Quakerism grew.     


A Persistent Peace
One Man’s Struggle for a Nonviolent World
John Dear, SJ
Loyola Press, $22.95, 456 pp.

John Dear’s memoir, A Persistent Peace, reminds us that real pacifism is not for the faint of heart. It is a conversion story—the story of how a beer-guzzling frat boy at Duke turned toward a new life of Catholic faith and practice, how he became committed to the cause of nonviolence, and how he decided to become a Jesuit. He had models within the order for the kind of Jesuit he wanted to become, most notably his older friend and hero Daniel Berrigan.

Dear did not have an easy time during his years of Jesuit formation. He had to reconcile his own commitment to being a public witness for peace with the stringent demands of his superiors, which he vowed to obey. He was more than once nearly expelled from the Society of Jesus for getting arrested at demonstrations. Those years of formation coincided with unprecedented opportunities for activism, and Dear was in the thick of many of them. He had gone to El Salvador and knew the Jesuits who were assassinated by the Salvadoran military. He spent time in Iraq and Northern Ireland. Part of his formation led him to homeless shelters in Washington, D.C., and he became deeply involved with the Pax Christi movement. He struggled against the imposition of the death penalty and rallied Mother Teresa to his cause. He managed to get a promise from the late Cardinal John O’Connor to visit Iraq so that he could see the terrible consequences of the Western blockade of that country. (Alas, O’Connor died before he could fulfill that promise.) Dear’s two years as director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (1998–2000) were a trial: he learned that this organization, which had once been a leader in the peace movement, had become a somnolent and slightly anti-Catholic bureaucracy.

Today, Dear serves several rural parishes in New Mexico, and remains engaged with the peace movement. He has been arrested over seventy times for his actions on behalf of peace, and spent eight months in jail in 1994. In 2008, Dear was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, wanted his companions to be “contemplatives in action.” John Dear certainly fits that description.


Related: Teresa of Avila, by Barbara Mujica
Required Reading, by Lawrence S. Cunningham

Published in the 2010-03-12 issue: 

Lawrence Cunningham is John O'Brien professor of Theology (Emeritus) at the University of Notre Dame.

Also by this author
Religion Booknotes

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