REVIEWS FROM DECEMBER 2000
of the latest books, audio,
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Marie; Golden, Renny; and Wright, Scott. Oscar Romero.
Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2000. 128 pp. Modern Spiritual Masters
Series. ISBN 1-57075-309-1, $13.00 (pb).
is a captivating little book that alternately enthralls and troubles
the reader. It presents El Salvador’s martyred archbishop as an
important actor in the real world of politics and the poor. Perhaps
more importantly, it portrays a messenger of divine grace and
favor who has lived in our midst.
those who are not familiar with the life of Oscar Arnulfo Romero,
this book provides an excellent introduction. The facts about
his life, ministry, and martyrdom are all succinctly presented
in the first five pages. But Romero is not the only subject of
this book; it is as much about poor and marginalized people everywhere—and
that is what will trouble the reader. This is not a guilt-producing
screed, though it should challenge every comfortable and complacent
reader. The transformation of an ordinary, pious, and somewhat
traditional bishop by the least significant members of his society,
may make some readers squirm. It will cause others to take heart.
volume belongs to the series Modern Spiritual Masters, and Oscar
Romero skillfully links the slain archbishop to the concepts
and tradition of martyrdom. Romero is seen, not just as a brother
to Gandhi and King, but as one of the latest in a series of witnesses
that stretches back to the likes of Stephen, Polycarp, and Ignatius
book is filled with thought-provoking and revealing quotations
from Romero’s speeches and writings. They challenge and comfort
us 20 years after his bloody and sacrificial death. Ultimately
this is an inspiring book about life and hope.
Samuel G. Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American
Jewry. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000. 384 pp. ISBN
this superb description of the human side of tensions internal
to the American Jewish community, Freedman begins in the style
of an investigative reporter by presenting a half dozen thorough,
up-to-the-minute, and engaging vignettes of flashpoints. These
include a decline of Yiddish culture as opposed to the rise of
orthodoxy, the collapse of a cooperative effort between liberal
and traditional rabbis, a clash over gender issues, the potential
for violence within a radical fringe, and a struggle between Orthodox
and Reform Jews. The book is detailed without being pedantic,
exciting without the over-dramatic. Freedman points out conflicts—between
Jews and the secular society and the splintering within orthodoxy
between those who ally with modernism and those who shun it. These
are not difficult issues to document, but Freedman does it so
reporting is strong, but his analysis does not rise to the same
high caliber. Jews, sharing a long, varied history, argue with
one another as with no one else. Freedman’s book, a superb contemporary
snapshot, makes a few references to history without summoning
the full lesson that history has to offer. His reflections on
the course of Jewish life in Israel, his wisps of hope and pessimism,
are not fully supported by his material.
Dwight N. Down, Up, and Over: Slave Religion and Black Theology.
Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 2000. 300 pp. ISBN 0-8006-2723-7,
is one of the foremost representatives of black theology in the
United States, with several works to his credit. This well-researched
book is particularly interesting for two reasons: First, the author
is concerned with developing a systematic approach; and second,
he turns his attention to the roots of black theology in the religion
the slaves brought with them from Africa. Hopkins’s critique of
the complicity of the Protestant churches in the indignity of
slavery is unsparing, and the citations from different versions
of the Episcopal Catechism are at once tragic and comic. His examination
of the elements of West African religion raises some fascinating
questions about the capacity of Christianity to absorb and incorporate
other traditions without losing its own identity, while at the
same time being enriched by the process. In addition, Hopkins
develops a theology of the Spirit that has implications far beyond
his own field.
the author slips into jargon—probably inevitable in a field that
draws so heavily on sociological data. There are also sporadic
lapses into political correctness and occasional elements of the
Marxist critique of the market economy that seem strangely dated.
the book is valuable because it documents the long and convoluted
path of black religion, from its origins in West Africa, through
the attempts of white American Protestants to mold it to their
goals, to the point where it can make a distinctive contribution
to the faith and life of Christians of all colors.
Bernard’s Institute, Albany, N.Y.
Philip. Mystics and Messiahs: Cults and New Religions in
American History. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2000.
294 pp. ISBN 0-19-512744-7, $27.50.
I were to recommend a single book on the issue of cults, Mystics
and Messiahs would be the one. Jenkins, distinguished professor
of history and religious studies at Penn State University, has
produced a scholarly and balanced book on this controversial and
convincingly demonstrates that cult movements are, and have been
historically, "laboratories and proving grounds for religious
innovation." His historical survey of such movements throughout
American history integrates them into broader religious, social,
and cultural developments. He succeeds in showing that recent
movements often have deep historical roots, as do the countermovements
(anticult groups) that react to them. Especially important are
his careful and nuanced descriptions of the often violent public
reactions to these atypical religious movements, which sometimes
develop later into mainstream traditions, such as Christian Science,
Mormonism, and Seventh-Day Adventism.
addition to his careful historical survey of known and obscure
movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Jenkins
gives in-depth analyses of twentieth-century religious movements
such as "I Am," witchcraft, Satanism, and the more recent doomsday
cults. His balanced view of them, and of their opponents, presents
a needed antidote to much of the hysteria and misinformation that
have been part of public and media reaction. Mystics and Messiahs
is a much needed scholarly contribution to a topic that has for
too long been the subject of public hysteria and distortion. Highly
Barbara. Suddenly Jewish: Jews Raised as Gentiles Discover
Their Jewish Roots. Hanover, N.H.: Univ. Press of New
England, 2000. 130 pp. ISBN 1-58465-038-9, $19.95.
short book explores the reactions of people raised as non-Jews
who discover their Jewish identity. Prompted by the revelation
that U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had Jewish parents
who concealed their identity when they fled Czechoslovakia before
the Second World War, Kessel placed notices in a variety of publications
to solicit the reactions of other non-Jews with Jewish roots.
Her book shows the diverse backgrounds and reactions of "sudden"
the largest group—many of whom have still not acknowledged their
Jewish roots—are the crypto-Jews, descendents of those forced
to convert during the Inquisition. (Some historians have argued
that virtually all persons living in the Americas who trace their
family trees to Spain or Portugal have at least some Jewish blood.)
The crypto-Jews Kessel interviews are aware of their heritage
and have tried in various ways to incorporate it into their lives.
Others with Jewish roots include children hidden by non-Jews during
the Holocaust, the children of Holocaust refugees and survivors,
and Jewish children adopted by non-Jewish families. One informant
represents the reverse: a young woman adopted by a Jewish family
who discovered that her father was of Palestinian Arab heritage.
from these diverse experiences, Kessel discusses issues of identity
formation and the cognitive dissonance that occurs when one discovers
s/he is not what s/he has been raised to believe. Some respond
with denial, some with anger; some make the effort to incorporate
dual identities into their lives. Although the focus of this book
is fairly narrow (and impressionistic rather than scientific),
it offers broader insights into multiracial/multiethnic identity.
Sheron C. New Faith: A Black Christian Woman’s Guide to
Reformation, Re-Creation, Rediscovery, Renaissance, Resurrection,
and Revival. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 2000.
160 pp. ISBN 0-8006-3158-7, $13.00 (pb).
theology is, by definition, sassy. It looks you in the eye, declares
unabashed faith in Jesus, speaks hard truths with love, and prays
that everyone (men included!) will get holy, healthy, and happy.
Patterson is a womanist theologian par excellence, doing what
she calls "a countercultural strut" and proclaiming a New Faith
to her sisters in the black church.
the idiom particular to her faith context, she brings her sisters
up to speed on contemporary Biblical scholarship, promotes self-esteem,
dares to champion inclusive language, confronts patriarchy and
the past, names the current sins of the community, offers solid
advice on relationships and sexuality, and then shouts out joy
and hope for the future. Her desired result is healing for all
may be addressing her beloved black church, but there is much
to be learned about ministry by all who read this book, black
or not. Her work is solidly grounded in contemporary scholarship.
She knows the folk she is addressing; she has shared their triumphs,
tribulations, and tragedies. She can speak words that the community
can hear. She can tell the truth and cast forth her vision without
breaking the community apart. This is stimulating, uplifting reading.