A Review of
Claiming Your Voice: Speaking Truth to Power
Reviewed by William D. Howden
Norvene Vest reiterates a question posed recently by Rev. Otis Moss III, “Will believers in Jesus … be chaplains for the empire or prophets to the nation?” (160). This book is Vest’s call for American Christians to be prophets, in this ambitious, wide-ranging, and passionate book. She addresses several concerns in her work, among them, climate change. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that highly religious Americans “are far less likely” than other citizens to be concerned about climate change. Norvene Vest, although highly religious, is clearly not among them.
Vest contends that American “political self-identity … needs to be re-visioned in light of the sacred.” She hopes to “reclaim the promise of America;” the first step toward that goal is “to give up denial in order to see who we [Americans] really are” (40-41). This might sound dangerously akin to right-wing Christian nationalism. It is actually far from it. Vest identifies herself as a progressive Christian and feminist theologian.
The central section of her book, “Witness to De-Formation: The Pathos of God,” intends “to make radically visible … the imperial consciousness that now dominates our national life” (49). In it, Vest identifies and documents four major “de-formations” of the American vision: Uncritical Confidence in Market Culture, Overweening Growth in Our Global Empire, Denial of Earth’s Climate Crisis, and Resistance to Diversity.
Each chapter is well-documented, challenging, and disturbing. Although they make up the central, and longest, section of the book, they are not the heart of the book. The heart of the book is in Vest’s call to spiritual renewal: “The future depends less on our doing than on our being” (emphasis hers). In the final section of the book, she suggests ways “we might together claim a new future … through prophetic lament, Benedictine return/conversion, and ongoing spiritual formation” (141).
Vest – an Episcopalian, an Oblate (lay associate) of a Benedictine monastery, a spiritual director and retreat leader – is probably best known for her writing on Benedictine spirituality, including Preferring Christ, her much-admired devotional commentary on the Rule of Benedict. Given that background, I was somewhat surprised by her shift to political theology in this new book. But, as she explains in the preface, this is not so much a shift as a return. Vest holds both undergraduate and graduate degrees in political theory and spent the early years of her adult life working on public policy within the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
While Vest draws on political theory, she finds the “foundations” for her critique of American public life in “Benedictine wisdom and the tradition of biblical prophecy” (xv). For the prophetic tradition, she draws heavily on the work of Walter Brueggemann and Abraham Heschel, especially Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination.
Vest also takes inspiration from Rowan Williams’ suggestion that the Rule of Benedict offers “a model for civic virtue” (20). That model that Vest offers is not sketched in as much detail as some readers might like. From the book’s title, I expected more of a call to direct activism. For Vest, however, the first step toward authentic activism is recovering one’s true identity before God. “Lived spirituality,” she contends, “is the only thing that ever has or ever will have meaningful positive impact on the real world” (168). It is faith in “the living God who always shatters our expectations and surpasses our imaginations” (153) which allows us, as prophets of God, to challenge the illusion that the way things are is the way they must always be. Prophetic imagination leads to faithful hope that things can be different.
Benedictine conversatio (“ongoing conversion of heart”) helps us break free from the de-formations of imperial consciousness, not just externally, but internally: “Conversatio is about the paschal mystery of death as the opening to new life” (154), dying to all that confines us, and helping us “become free for God” (173). Vest also draws on the Benedictine tradition to argue that spiritual formation for prophetic change is best done in community, that “the discipline of community … help[s] us become free of those ego impulses that routinely prevent wholehearted and effective engagement with others” (173-174).
Certainly, I believe this book would best be read within a community. The chapters on the four “de-formations” can be heavy going, threatening to leave the reader with an even deeper sense of hopelessness. Group discussion, using the model for “Practice of Conscious Community” that Vest provides in an appendix, would be beneficial.
Throughout my reading, I kept asking myself, “Who is the intended audience for this book?” For example, I doubt that Vest’s twenty-page chapter on climate change, as well-documented as it is, would be sufficient to convince skeptics. In the end, I concluded that she writes for progressive American Christians (especially white Christians, such as herself and this reviewer), who are already concerned about these issues and would like to explore them more deeply, who might even be wringing their hands over the problems she identifies and are searching for hope.
Vest writes to offer hope: hope that our lament over the way things are is our participation in the pathos of God, and hope that our ongoing spiritual formation, in community with one another, will give us the vision and the courage to work for change. As she writes, “Moses’ task of prophetic imagination is also ours today, that is, to provide energy for hope, to cut through the numbness, and to penetrate the self-deception of imperial consciousness so that the real God and the sacred again become visible and empowering for our people” (163, emphasis hers).
William D. Howden
William D. Howden is a retired minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and is a Benedictine Oblate. Bill holds MDiv and PhD degrees from Princeton Theological Seminary. He lives
in San Antonio, Texas, with his wife, Jan Davis. Together they write and publish an e-newsletter, Soul Windows: Reflection (www.soulreflection.org).
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