Archives For Social Criticism

 

An excerpt from

American Plastic: Boob Jobs, Credit Cards, and the Quest for Perfection.
Laurie Essig.
Hardback: Beacon Press, 2011.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Watch for a review soon in the ERB…

 

A Brief Reflection on
Slavoj  Žižek’s use of John Howard Yoder
In his New Book:

Living in the End Times.
Hardback: Verso Books, 2010.
Buy Now:  [ Amazon ]

By Chris Smith

[ Watch a video of Žižek talking about this new book… ]

This will not be a full review, as I am taking my time working through Slavoj Žižek’s new book Living in the End Times; I’m only about a third of the way through the book and savoring every word as I go.  However, since the book has been out for a few months, I thought that a reflection on Žižek’s brief reference to the work of John Howard Yoder in this new volume might fit well with the content of the current issue.   Before I get to Yoder, however, allow me first to summarize the project that Žižek is undertaking here.   Starting with the premise that global capitalism is in the last days before its collapse (a premise based on the evidence of ecological crisis, widening social and economic divides and the biogenetic revolution), Žižek makes a pointed and convincing case that humankind’s collective response to the reality of the imminent collapse of capitalism parallels the traditional five stages of grief: denial, anger, depression, withdrawal and finally, acceptance.  His work here demonstrates as clearly as any of his previous works that he is – as I have argues before in these pages – one of the keenest critics of global capitalism, to whom the Church must lend an ear as we seek to discern the signs of the times.

Žižek uses Yoder to critique some of the “anger” response to the collapsing of capitalism, the (very) basic line of his argument is that such anger is rooted in despair, but he offers Yoder’s work as a counter-example of hope that a different non-capitalist form of society is possible:  i.e., the Church.  He offers a sympathetic reading of Yoder, saying:

Yoder did not reject Constantinianism on behalf of an ascetic withdrawal of believers from social life:  aware of the limitations of democracy, he understood “being Christian” as involving a non-reconciled political standpoint.  The primary responsibility of Christians is not to take over society and impose their convictions and values on people who do not share their faith, but to “be the church.”  By refusing to repay evil with evil, by living in peace and sharing goods, the church bears witness to the fact that there is an alternative to a society based on violence or the threat of violence (129).

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“The Gospel of the Land”

A review of
Consulting the Genius of the Place:
An Ecological Approach to the New Agriculture
.
By Wes Jackson.

Reviewed by Chris Smith.

Consulting the Genius of the Place:
An Ecological Approach to the New Agriculture
.
By Wes Jackson.

Hardback: Counterpoint, 2010.

Buy now: [ Amazon ]

CONSULTING THE GENIUS OF THE PLACE - Wes JacksonWes Jackson, founder of The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, has been of the leading voices of the agrarian movement over the last four decades.  And yet, his books are relatively unknown.  This fate, however, is perhaps about to change, with the recent release of what is perhaps his finest work, Consulting the Genius of the Place: An Ecological Approach to the New Agriculture.   The themes of place, biodiversity and the virtues of perennial plants that have abounded in Jackson’s previous books converge in Jackson’s thorough argument for a new approach to agriculture that is dictated not by market economies or agribusiness but rather by the land and ecology of a given place.  Jackson’s argument is fairly simple: humanity needs to learn to shift our agricultural efforts away from large-scale monoculture operations which contribute to the catastrophic effects of erosion and of the chemicals in the fertilizers and pesticides that such monocultures demand.  Instead, he argues, we should return to diverse plantings that include perennial crops and that fit with the land, climate and other ecological features of our particular places.  He says in the book’s preface:  “As our minds sweep over the past and back to the present, I want them to center on the natural ecosystems still with us as our primary teachers.  They are our source of hope.  Reduced in number and limited in scale, they still hold answers to countless questions we have not yet learned to ask” (xi).  The primary natural ecosystem, of course, that Jackson and others at The Land Institute have trained their focus – given their home base in Kansas – is that of the prairie.

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A Review ofNew Covenant Bound.
T(ony) Crunk.
Paperback: UP of Kentucky, 2010.
Buy now:  [ Amazon ]

Reviewed by Thomas Turner.

The young poet T. Crunk’s latest work is a mixture of poetry and prose that tells the epic story of a family adversely affected by progress and the longing for an agrarian past. The words form a tangle of longing and the haunting of an old way of life that peruses the depths of Kentucky’s soul.

Crunk navigates the rising waters of a Tennessee Valley Authority project that displays scores of families with dam building, all for the sake of “progress.” Juxtaposed in the text are the old ways and new ways of living for a family that has lived the same way since they first touched Kentucky soil, and their inability to sail safely through the waters of progress and change are the focus of Crunk’s keen sense of place and time.

The sense of place is Crunk’s most dramatic arc, as the family must move from their old town to New Covenant. Bound for this new town, the family wrestles with the loss of a farm that served as their whole identity: when you are born and buried in the same place you live and work, place and identity have a way of becoming the same thing. The family’s hard life of farming seems cursed, and their curse doubles as their whole existence will soon be placed under billions of gallons of water:

Our only sin was being born where we were. And not giving up on
a land that often spited us.

Our only sin was not having what they thought was enough. And
being forced to take what they call help. (52)

What the government called help was diversion to an internment camp and not much else. What seemed like an opportunity for a fresh start for hundreds of subsistence farmers in Appalachia soon turned into a cynical view of government, progress and the value of life and land. Some move away to cities. Some commit suicide. Others stick around as close to their homeland as possible, hoping that they can re-create their life, but it is all for naught. The narrative of human flourishing and living on the land has been drowned like their farms, and the light of hope which once carried them through hardship and hunger has faded to the point that darkness can now overcome it.

Crunk’s poetry shapes the ethos of an age that is so different but so very much like our own, when progress is supposed to go about unobstructed and unopposed for the sake of the people, for our own good. But Crunk forces us to reflect on our history of unrelenting progress, that under every reservoir there might well be the hopes and dreams of people cast asunder to on our collective journey toward a “brighter” future.

Brief Review: NEW COVENANT BOUND by Tony Crunk [Vol. 3, #42]

 

“Reimagining
Poverty and Development”

A review of
Relationality

By Claudio Oliver.

Reviewed by Chris Smith.

Relationality
Claudio Oliver.
Pamphlet: Relational Tithe, 2010.

Buy now: [ Relational Tithe ]

Claudio Oliver- RELATIONALITYClaudio Oliver, a pastor and community developer from Curitiba, Brazil stands in a rich tradition of recent Christian social critics that includes Ivan Illich, John McKnight and Jacques Ellul.  Indeed, my very first exposure to Claudio’s work was stumbling upon an online video of him defending his graduate thesis on Ivan Illich, Leo Tolstoy and Paulo Freire (HERE, but be forewarned, it’s in Portuguese).  Oliver’s first English publication, a pamphlet entitled Relationality, has recently been published by Relational Tithe.  This little gem of a pamphlet follows Ivan Illich’s and John McKnight’s critiques of poverty and development (especially Illich’s Toward a History of Needs; read an essay that basically summarizes the book here), but does so in a clear and narrative style that is simple to read and thoroughly engaging.  One of Oliver’s main points here is that “[Poverty] is not fundamentally not the lack of things or of stuff, but rather the lack of friends.  To be poor is to have no friends” (14).

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A Brief Review

SPRAWL: A Novel.
Danielle Dutton.
Paperback: Siglio Press, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Reviewed by Thomas Turner.

The suburbs have been the subject of ire for many years now, but recently the recession has turned up the heat on the cynical yet attractive institution. The recession has led to what many see as the slow death of the suburbs. Rows of foreclosed homes in the Sun Belt, bastions of wealth and status symbols now boarded up or secretly lived in by squatters, these are the new suburbs.

There has been a flurry of art and critique about these places of limbo between city and country. GOOD Magazine published their Neighborhoods issue which tackled issues ranging from neighborliness to how to stop building developments around golf courses and start building them around farms. The Arcade Fire came out with a blisteringly cynical album entitled, most appropriately, The Suburbs, complete with an interactive isolation-inducing music video to go along with it. Channeling the zeitgeist, Danielle Dutton’s new novel Sprawl chronicles every waking thought of a suburban woman.

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“Our complicity in the age
of ‘Cheap’ Oil and Hypermobility

A Review of

Interstate 69:
The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway
.

By Matt Dellinger.

Reviewed by Brent Aldrich.


Interstate 69:
The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway
.

By Matt Dellinger.

Hardback: Scribner, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Interstate 69 - DellingerDriving back home to Indianapolis from Evansville one night last year, a city in the southwestern most tip of the state, which I’ve only been through this once, I pulled out my Indiana road map to figure out how to get home. It was late, and so I started along the route that looked quickest – not a common choice for me, but there I was. And after just a couple of miles, signs began to appear to tell me that the Interstate was ending. I checked my map, and sure enough, a thick red line stretched all the way to Indianapolis, but it wasn’t here. I realized my mistake, as this was only, as my state-produced map indicated in its margin, the I-69 CORRIDOR, which I knew about only vaguely at the time, mostly from its huge opposition. And so, I took state roads back to Bloomington and on to home, much as I normally would.

I relate this incident because it seems now, as it did then, to indicate the power of an image – in this case a line drawn on a map – as representing a complex set of desires and hopes, beliefs, fears, and narratives about how the world works (or should work). The dream of Interstate 69, reaching from Canada to Mexico, via this route through Indiana, and down through Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Texas, has been in the air for multiple decades now, and its history tells the story of transportation in the States. Matt Dellinger’s Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway starts down in Evansville, and winds down the path of the proposed I-69, meeting its advocates and adversaries all along the way; tracing the routes of rivers, trains, and state roads that all predated the Interstate system; and telling the stories of cities – large and small – that stand to feel the effect if I-69 ever reaches them: what the effect will be is the driving motivation behind anyone interested in the I-69 project, and is telling of broader beliefs about cities, economies, and communities; read this book with an atlas in your other hand.

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“An Unsatisfying Account

A Review of
Hipster Christianity:
When Church and Cool Collide.

by Brett McCracken.

Reviewed by Chris Smith.

Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide.
by Brett McCracken.

Paperback: Baker Books, 2010.
Buy now: [ ChristianBook.com ]

[ For a thorough critique of this work, read
David Session’s review  in Patrol Magazine. ]

It’s rare that I am as disappointed with a book as I was with Brett McCracken’s Hipster Christianity.  For a long time, I have been interested in youth culture movements and their intersections with the life of church communities, and I am certain that there is rich ground for exploration of the creativity, energy and social criticism that these movements have injected into churches, particularly over the last four decades.  And on the flip side, there are undoubtedly a multitude of ways in which these movements have been co-opted within Christianity for ends related to church growth and marketing, which was the thought that popped into my mind when I first heard the book’s sub-title “When Church and Cool Collide.”  And my anticipation of the book was further stoked by its creative and entertaining pre-release marketing, “The Christian Hipster Quiz,” which made its rounds on the internet earlier this summer.  Unfortunately, however, Brett McCracken’s book fails to deliver, and his work has been the target of a number of recent pointed critiques (from John Wilson of Books and Culture to David Sessions of Patrol Magazine – whose excellent and thorough review leaves me little to say here).

To his credit, McCracken does, in the finest work that the book has to offer, pen a decent history of “Hip Christianity.”  His descriptive work, however, is overshadowed by his flimsy analytical work, particularly his theological work which never seems to be able to imagine much of a Christianity beyond evangelicalism.  McCracken does, over the course of the book, highlight a number of key facets of “hipster” movements within Christianity over the last decade – the emerging church, emphases on social justice and art, etc. – but these topics are addressed in a rapid and disconnected fashion reminiscent of a PowerPoint presentation.  I am certain that there is deeper narrative about the intersections of the Church and youth culture that could be told, and I suspect that David Sessions is right when he observes that such an account would not fit neatly within McCracken’s evangelical framework.  If you’re interested in a descriptive history of recent intersections of youth culture and Christianity, Hipster Christianity might be of some interest to you, but if you’re looking for deeper reflections about the significance of this history, then we must wait for a book that is yet to be published.

 

“Uncovering a Common Wealth

A Review of
What Matters?:
Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth.

by Wendell Berry

Reviewed by Joe Bowling.


What Matters?:
Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth.

Wendell Berry

Paperback: Counterpoint Press, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

What Matters? Wendell BerryTo paraphrase from memory something I believe Norman Wirzba once wrote, “For a growing number of us, reading Wendell Berry is perhaps the most important thing that we do.” For quite some time now, I have believed this statement to be true. If you are reading this review and have not yet read from Wendell Berry’s works, please allow me to play a small role in helping to change your life for the better. If you are reading this review and are familiar with Wendell’s poetry, novels, or non-fiction, you are almost undoubtedly nodding in agreement.

Providing a review for something that Wendell Berry has written is a difficult task. There is little chance of either providing a meaningful critique or of helping to better communicate his ideas. Few authors write with such clarity, economy and imagination. Each of Berry’s ideas is part of a comprehensive whole, a finely-attended garden if you will, which he has cultivated, and — as he would likely say — has been cultivated in him, for many decades.

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A Brief Review of Death and Life in America:
Biblical Healing and Biomedicine
.
Raymond Downing.
Paperback: Herald Press, 2008.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Reviewed by Rev. Karen Altergott.

Is biolife an idol and biomedicine an overly powerful force in contemporary society?  What is a Christian to do when confronted by a beast of a system that seems able to name our problems, control and limit the potential solutions, and make any choice other than biomedical intervention seem foolish?  The option of considering bio-psycho-socio-spiritual healing requires somewhat more of both patient and practitioner.  Biomedicine, while not ultimately to be rejected, is quite reasonably questioned.  The independence from God that a pure mechanical and physical approach implies should be completely and clearly rejected.

Death and Life in America provides an excellent overview of healing as Jesus healed into the Kingdom of Heaven, and healing as modern physicians, including the author, have healed. Physicians heal through the advances of biomedicine in the Kingdom of this World.  While dancing on the edge of gnosticism with the division between physical and spiritual, Downing basically places biomedicine in the realm of the world.  He labels medicine as one of the principalities and powers, and since it is tied up with power over others, the market, the illusion of independence from God, it is somewhat dangerous to all.

On the other hand, the power of Jesus, Son of God, heals in another way.  The comparison of resuscitated life and resurrected life shows the difference between holding on to biolife and to entering God’s Kingdom and the new life therein. The central chapters provide a good description and analysis of healing in the New Testament record. The power of God through Jesus to name the problem humans face, to heal the body, mind, spirit, relationship, and to change the approach we have to life itself is incarnate healing, embodied healing.  If we accept that we are not autonomous from God, that medicine does not rule our decisions or our lives, then there is hope that healing – biomedical as well-  may be based on faith.  The concept of Christ carrying our pain, and of us carrying others’ suffering moves us into the realm of how are we now to live with one another in a very helpful way.  Acceptance of brokenness and suffering – and biodeath when it is time – is a major sub-theme of this book.

What then for medicine and healing?  Perhaps here is where Downing doesn’t go far enough.  With the burgeoning of alternative healing, by 2008 when this book was written, our good doctor could have taken some stance on the many ways of healing that Americans are seeking.  The next book might be notes from the resistance: what it means to combine healing as Jesus heals with a world that accesses – but does not bow down to – biomedicine.