[easyazon-image align=”none” asin=”0814682103″ locale=”us” height=”333″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51oQf89WO1L.jpg” width=”222″ alt=”Christopher Pramuk” ]Profound Engagement With the Real
A Review of
Hope Sings, So Beautiful: Graced Encounters Across the Color Line
Paperback: Liturgical Press, 2013
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Reviewed by Alden Bass
Racial division within the church is not only a great sin, but a failure of the Christian imagination. Despite its significant ethical resources, the church remains as deeply divided by race as the culture to which it’s called to witness. Eleven o’clock on Sunday morning is still this country’s most segregated hour. In Hope Sings, So Beautiful, Christopher Pramuk calls Christians to expand the circle of their imagination by attending to the songs, poetry, film and art surrounding them. Some of his earliest reflections on the subject of race and exclusion grew out of his engagement with Stevie Wonder’s double-LP masterpiece, Songs in the Key of Life. He recalls how his “social horizons” were broken open listening to the blind artist sing “Would you like to go with me / Down my dead end street / Would you like to come with me / To Village Ghetto Land?” By offering meditations on this work and the works of artists and theologians such as Thomas Merton, Billie Holiday, Godfrey Reggio, Etty Hillesum, and Howard Thurman, Pramuk aims to do the same for his readers, red and yellow, black and white. By offering these meditations, Pramuk aims to provoke hope.
Hope is crucial because a renewed imagination is not enough to bring racial healing – the problem is so large that it cannot be addressed by individuals or even institutions like the church. God alone heals, and Christians must wait on the Lord. In the meantime, Christians can only hope for an end to racial division, and divisions of all kinds. Hope, however, is the product of imagination. God inspires prophetic persons and communities to “break the silence so as to make something different happen with words – or in the case of artists…through images, silence, and music” (80). Pramuk does not reserve the prophetic mantle for ministers and theologians alone, rather anyone who breaks the silence can be considered a prophet. In fact, since the producers of culture have the greatest hold on our imaginations it is they who have the greatest chance of expanding our social boundaries. Through the contemplation and prayer evoked by these cultural products, God “makes room in our hearts so that we…might be prepared to smile in wonder, in the fresh spirit of goodness, freedom, and possibility that hides in every person” (49). The Spirit blows where it will.
Pramuk’s willingness to hear every voice, and not only Christian voices, points to the fact that racism is not a black/white, Christian/non-Christian issue, but fundamentally a human problem. Pramuk is aware that he writes as a PWM – a privileged white male – and he acknowledges that whites, because of their privilege, often have ignored or dismissed racism. “They have no skin in the game,” he writes (xxiii). Yet Pramuk himself has skin in the game. As a Christian educator, he’s worked in Mexican American and black Catholic parishes across the U.S., and also in Honduras. Additionally, he and his wife are the adoptive parents of two Haitian children. Even though black scholars and artists have been addressing issues of racism for many years, Pramuk suggests that white scholars and artists have perhaps an even greater responsibility to raise racial consciousness among whites.
The most memorable and disturbing evocation of hope in Hope Sings is a reflection on Billie Holiday’s 1939 song, “Strange Fruit.” The song was written by a Jewish high school teacher from the Bronx named Abel Meeropol as a protest to lynchings in the Southern U.S. “Strange Fruit” became a signature part of Holiday’s repertoire until the end of her career. The first stanza says, “Southern trees bear strange fruit, / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root, / Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze, / Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.” It’s impossible here to do justice to Pramuk’s poetic and thoughtful analysis, which moves from Negro spirituals to Thomas Merton to the Gospel to Phil Ochs. “Strange Fruit” is a difficult and unpleasant song. In fact, it is not hopeful at all. Yet the fact the song is and was sung is hopeful. As he says toward the end of the chapter, “Perhaps truth, goodness, and beauty are found, after all – or find us most ready to receive them – not in what we win but in ‘the act of struggle itself,’ the willingness to immerse ourselves body and soul in the history we have been given, and thus to be drawn into that same horizon of grace that rendered Jesus’ own struggle unspeakably beautiful, even where it plunges into violence and death on a cross” (65). It’s not an overstatement to add that Pramuk’s own prayerful reflections on this and the other works discussed in other chapters participate in the same truth, beauty, and goodness.
While imagination can lead to fantasy, the sort of imagination which produces hope “involves a profound engagement with the real” (106), as the “Strange Fruit” chapter shows. Or, as he says elsewhere, “All hope begins with telling the truth” (12). Imaginations are held captive to pernicious narratives about race, culture, and sexuality. Pramuk provides a series of snapshots of these realities which promote rather than overcome difference in both church and society. He mentions the “Stand Your Ground” laws in some states, the racist and sexist character of music videos, the 53-hours per week average American children spend in front of the television, the high-rates of sexual assault of college women, sexual abuse of children by clergy, the nearly 18,000 human beings trafficked in the U.S. annually, the almost-exclusive European aesthetic of the Catholic church, the rise of video game addiction, and the average 3,500 texts which 13-17 year old children send every month. These phenomena (and he mentions even more) inhibit true “encounter” with nature, with other humans, and ultimately with the mystery of the Divine. Without real encounter – or real presence as he prefers to call it – humans will continue to essentialize one another, to reduce each other to a single ‘essential’ aspect of their being, whether that be their race, nationality, politics, or sexuality.
Only graced encounters can explode such reductions. So long as the privileged continue to ignore the prophets in our midst, whether Amos or Stevie Wonder, divisions will persist and imaginations will remain captive. Pramuk’s hope is that by widening the imagination the circle of love will be opened to include all people. Christopher Pramuk’s hope is that the church can say, at the end of the day, “You are welcome, just as you are.”