“The Ants and the Grasshopper”: A Movie Review

Rarely have I written movie reviews, but thanks to Mike Morrell and his Speakeasy book/movie review network, I received the right to view the 2021 crowd-funded movie titled The Ants and the Grasshopper, and I am gladly fulfilling my obligation to provide a public review of it.

Devoid of sensationalism and/or emotionalism, The Ants and the Grasshopper is a nicely crafted, slow moving film that begins and ends in a village in central Malawi. It features two impressive Malawian women, Anita Chitaya, a small farmer and local leader in her village, and Esther Luafua, a doctor and co-founder of a local organization called Soils, Food and Healthy Communities. The two women are primarily interested in working toward slowing climate change, which is adversely affecting their community. That is the main focus of the movie, too—but it is also about working for gender and racial equality and overcoming the gap between the wealthy who have an over-abundance of food and the poor who struggle to have enough to eat.

The film-makers arrange for Chitaya and Luafua to travel to America to talk with farmers and even, they hope, with elected officials in Washington, D.C. Although Anita, especially, has to communicate mainly through a translator, she is not intimidated by the affluent white farmers they meet in Iowa. Even though the people they converse with have organic farms and are advocates of sustainable farming, they show little interest in the problem of global warming. The Malawian women are disappointed in that, but they are more encouraged by the work of the mostly-Black small farmers they meet across the country, such as at the D-Town Farm in Detroit and the Black Dirt Farm Collective in Maryland. They are also able to talk briefly with Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) in D.C., but unfortunately, none of that conversation is included in the film.

When they return to their home country, Anita and Esther realize that while they have not been completely successful in seeking to change ideas about climate change in the U.S., at least they have been able to see how the poor can teach the rich, Blacks can teach Whites, and women can teach men.

Here is the link to the official film trailer, and this is the link to the film’s website that includes further links regarding purchasing screening rights and also a study guide for use in churches. The latter is for three, hour-long sessions that call for watching twenty minutes of the film each time. This seems as if it would be a fruitful study for a church group of any size, and I would like to have the opportunity to participate in such a study.

Indeed, there is much we here in the U.S. can and should learn from Anita Chitaya and Esther Luafua, the “poor” African women with the desire and the determination to work on solving the problem of climate change, hunger, and gender/racial inequality. I hope there will be many church groups and secular organizations who will procure the screening rights to this noteworthy film and encourage widespread viewing and discussion of it.

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Summary of Circling the Elephant (2020) by John J. Thatamanil

[My May 25 regular blog post was about the book that I am summarizing much more fully here. Click here to read the much shorter blog article titled “Pondering Pachyderm Perambulation.”]

This is a very scholarly book that, after the Preface, begins with “Introduction: Revisiting an Old Tale.” That “old tale,” is “The Elephant and the Blind(folded) Men.” Although Thatamanil doesn’t mention it, perhaps that tale is best known in the U.S. because of what the American poet John Godfrey Saxe called “a Hindoo fable” in his 1872 poem “The Blind Men and the Elephant.” (That poem in its entirety is included at the end of this summary.)

After that important 19-page introduction, the first numbered chapter is “Religious Difference and Christian Theology: Thinking About, Thinking With, and Thinking Through.” A careful reading and understanding of the author’s points there helps the reader to understand the scholarly discussion of exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism in the next two chapters. Chapters 4 and 5 deal with the complexity and misunderstanding of the concepts of religion and the religious, which according to the author have often been problematic.

After dealing in chapter 6, “The Hospitality of Receiving,” with the thought and practice of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., the following chapter is the author’s contribution to constructive theology as he writes about “God as Ground, Singularity, and Relation: Trinity and Religious Diversity.” The book concludes, then, with the ten-page chapter titled “This Is Not a Conclusion.”

Author Thatamanil

John J. Thatamanil was born in Gerala, India, and migrated to Brooklyn with his parents when he was eight years old. In India and then in the U.S. he was affiliated with the Mar Thoma Church, which, it is claimed, can be traced back to Thomas, one of Jesus’ twelve apostles, who went to India to evangelize. In addition to his personal knowledge of Hinduism, the indigenous religion of India, the author also has deep, first-hand knowledge of Buddhism, and in the Preface he informs his readers that he continues both “Buddhist practice and Christian worship” (p. xvii).

He earned the Ph.D. degree at Boston University in 2000 and is noted for his scholarly study of Christian theologian Paul Tillich. The influence of Tillich is evident at various places in the book. After several years as a professor at Vanderbilt Divinity School, in 2011 Thatamanil became an Associate Professor of Theology and World Religions at Union Theological Seminary.

The Central Issue

Thatamanil’s first sentence in the Introduction identifies the central issue of the book: “Is religious diversity fundamentally a problem?”—and he particularly seeks to deal with the question of whether it is, or should be, a problem for Christians. He tips his hand, though, when in the epigraph at the beginning of the Introduction he cites Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s words spoken at Union Seminary in 1965: “In this aeon diversity of religions is the will of God.”

The author wants to see religious diversity as promise rather than as problem. “That,” he states, “is the question Circling the Elephant sets out to explore” (p. 1). A strong advocate of harmony and mutual acceptance, Thatamanil says, “To imagine religious diversity as promise instead of problem is to refuse those who seek to turn diversity into divisiveness” (p. 2). Positively, he emphasizes that the world needs “religious diversity in order to register and receive the rich multiplicity of the divine life” (p. 5).

It is in this setting that the old fable is considered, and the author states that if the tale is suitably reformulated, it is “appealing because it gives theologians a way to imagine real diversity as a positive good” (p. 6). So, after discussing five problems with the old allegory, Thatamanil states, “This book is a Christian exercise in pachyderm perambulation” (p. 11).

The foundational first chapter is “Religious Difference and Christian Theology: Thinking About, Thinking With, and Thinking Through,” and he begins with discussing “Should Religious Diversity Be a ‘Problem’ for Christians? (pp. 21~29). He concludes this important topic by saying that there are “robust reasons for believing that we need not only our neighbors but also their [religious] traditions if we are to move more fully into the life of God.” Thus, “Only a ‘relational pluralism’ in which the salvific power of our various traditions [is] mobilized and animated through relationship and mutual transformation can serve as an adequate foundation for a theology of religious diversity.”

So, focusing on this central issue, Thatamanil declares: “This book articulates the hope for a comparative theology of religious diversity” (p. 34). And at the end of chapter 1 he explains that he seeks “to formulate a theology of religious diversity that makes interreligious learning and mutual transformation possible (p. 40).

Exclusivism, Inclusivism, and Pluralism

For many years now, Christian theologians of religion have identified and written about three positions that are widely known as exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism. Thatamanil discusses these three positions in his second and third chapters, negatively evaluating all three except for what he proposes as “relational pluralism” in the third chapter. Before presenting his specific assessments/criticisms, though, he reiterates his central position near the beginning of the second chapter: “A theology of religious diversity that celebrates attentive learning might move away from regarding religious diversity as a problem to be solved and recognize religious diversity as a promise to be received” (p. 42). Thus, he is positive about relational pluralism as he notes that it is marked by a “taste for multiplicity” and shows its “delight in the gifts of other wisdoms” (p. 103).

The last part of the third chapter is “A Concluding Warning: The Trouble with Religion,” and this is his springboard into the next two chapters.

Analyzing “Religion” and “the Religious”

Near the end of chapter one, Thatamanil states: “We need theological projects that remind us that the invention of ‘religions’ and the invention of races were historically coterminous and part of a single, albeit multifaceted, imperial project” (p. 39). Thus, the third chapter is his criticism of the use of the word/concept “religion” and the next chapter explains how he prefers to use the adjective “religious” rather than the reified noun. He thinks that there is “little empirical resonance between the way Western scholars imagine religion and the way religious identities are actually lived out on the ground” (p. 127).

At the end of the fourth chapter, the author writes, “To be religious is not to belong to a timeless cultural-linguistic framework with a deep and stable transhistorical grammar but to seek comprehensive qualitative orientation by the creative use of contested and porous traditions that are always composed of what they are and what they are not” (p. 151). That is his lead into the fifth chapter: “Defining the Religious: Comprehensive Qualitative Orientation.” The subtitle expresses his attempt to explain what being religious is all about.

Thatamanil writes, all in italics,

Any qualitative interpretation of the felt character of the universe . . . I take to be religious when such an interpretation is accompanied by a commitment to practices that shape communal and personal comportment in the universe as so interpreted. Conversely, commitment to practices that so shape communal and personal comportment, such that they imply and generate a qualitative interpretation of the felt character of the universe . . . is also religious (p. 164).

It needs to be noted that the author recognizes that “secular institutions and activities continue to perform religious work.” He thinks that the religious “refuses to be confined to the sphere of religion or the religious even though moderns have come to think of comprehensive qualitative orientation as the special prerogative of what we now call religions” (p. 172). Thus, he has brief sections on “Economics as Religion” (pp. 183~7) and “Capitalism as Religion” (pp. 187~190).

Learning from Other Religions

Chapter 6 is “The Hospitality of Receiving: Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Interreligious Learning.” In some ways, since it deals with well-known people and events, this is one of the easiest chapters in the book to read and understand—but perhaps it is also the most problematical.

Thatamanil highly evaluates Gandhi’s learning and internalizing Tolstoy and his teaching about Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and then in turn praises MLK, Jr., for using what he learned from Gandhi. He concludes, “Even traditionalist Christians can confess that God has disclosed God’s self most fully in the Christ and yet also believe that one’s Hindu neighbor may see dimensions of that fullness that Christians have not yet appreciated” (p. 211). While that may well be so, that is quite different from what he wrote, with reference to MLK, Jr., on the previous page: “. . . no tradition affords more complete or efficacious access to ultimate reality than any other.”

A New Formulation of the Trinity

One of the author’s major purposes in this book is presenting a new formulation of what Christians have traditionally called the doctrine of the Trinity, and this is what he sets forth in the seventh chapter, “God as Ground, Singularity, and Relation: Trinity and Religious Diversity.”

It is difficult to summarize his argument succinctly, so suffice it to say that he expresses the traditional Christian concept of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit by forwarding the concept of “God as ground, singularity, and relation” (p. 217)—and he says that this formulation “is just one Christian theologian’s venture at redescribing the elephant after a series of forays into Buddhist and Hindu traditions” (p. 220). However, the idea of God as the ground of being is based on German philosopher Martin Heidegger and Christian theologian Paul Tillich as well as on the Hindu emphasis on the nonduality of Brahman and atman.

Thatamanil’s discussion of singularity is mostly based on the ideas of Christian mystics and the theologian John Duns Scotus (1266~1308). Also, in formulating the third part of the Trinity, the author uses the word Spirit some, but never refers to Holy Spirit. He does emphasize this as his central point: “Relation names the truth that nothing whatsoever is what it is apart from its relation. To be is to be in relation” (p. 240). (He might have introduced the Bantu/South African concept of ubuntu here, but he didn’t. Thich Nhat Hanh’s emphasis on “we inter-are” could also have been included here, but it is not mentioned until the last chapter, on p. 251—and Nhat is misspelled there and in the index.)

Near the end of this chapter, Thatamanil emphasizes his main point that we need to be engaged in “the work of learning about our neighbors, the work of learning from our neighbors so that we might ourselves learn more about God” (p. 247).

The Conclusion which is Not a Conclusion

The eighth and last chapter of Thatamanil’s book is titled “This is Not a Conclusion.” That is partly because “interreligious learning is an endless process because there is always more to be known” (p. 249). In summarizing the thrust of his book, though, the author writes, “Circling the Elephant repudiates religious isolationism and calls for thoroughgoing vulnerability” (p. 251), and he asserts that “we can no longer think of religious traditions as isolated blindfolded persons, each focused on one aspect of the elephant because each tradition, in its spiraling around ultimate reality, begins to interpenetrate each other” (p. 253). Further, “We must circle the elephant together if we are to understand each other, let alone the elephant.”

THE BLIND MEN AND THE ELEPHANT

A HINDOO FABLE

I.

IT was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

II.

The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me!—but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”

III.

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried: “Ho!—what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ‘t is mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”

IV.

The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:

“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!”

V.

The Fourth reached out his eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he;
“‘T is clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”

VI.

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”

VII.

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”

VIII.

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

MORAL.

So, oft in theologic wars
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

~John Godfrey Saxe (1816~87)

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Writings about Apologetics

On April 15, I posted a new blog article (on my regular blogsite) titled “Apology for Apologetics.” That post, and the comments made about it, can be accessed by clicking here.

The blog post just mentioned was directly related to the post I made on this blogsite on April 12, and it should be easily found below.

Both of the above refer to the last essay I had published before retiring (in 2004) as a professor at Seinan Gakuin University in Fukuoka City, Japan. Here is the link to that essay, mainly about the German theologian/apologist Karl Heim.

I would be pleased to receive comments, or questions, about any of the above.

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Review of Randal Rauser’s “Conversations with my Inner Atheist”

Canadian Baptist theologian and apologist Randal Rauser has authored a delightful new (2020) book on Christian apologetics. The subtitle of this work, which seems to be primarily for questioning Christian believers, or have-been` believers, is A Christian Apologist Explores Questions that Keep People Up at Night.

On the cover and again just before the first page of the text are the provocative words of American physicist Richard Feynman (1918~88), who declared, “I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.” Although Rauser (b. 1973) identifies himself as “a broadly evangelical Christian,” he clearly eschews the arrogant certainty that is now characteristic of much conservative evangelicalism (and the fundamentalism of the 20th century).

After a brief introduction, the entire book from the first chapter through the Conclusion after the 25th chapter is written as a dialogue between Randal, the author, and Mia, the name taken from my inner atheist. Mia is a sharp interlocutor who not only asks penetrating questions but also deftly questions the answers Randal gives her. (I don’t know why Rauser’s “inner atheist” is female, but Mia seems to be a woman’s name.)

Rauser’s delightful book is clearly written for a popular (= non-academic) audience rather than for scholars, and the clever dialogue that includes some humorous repartee makes the book very readable for a general audience. That being said, it seems clear that the audience in mind are people who are familiar with traditional evangelical Christianity. Thus, this work is more for questioning/ doubting Christians and for people who were brought up in the church rather than for people reared in and currently immersed in a non-Christian and/or secular worldview.

Rauser deals with some of the most difficult topics that have beset Christian thinkers (and apologists) through the years: “How do you make sense of the Trinity?” (chapter 5), “Why does God torture people in hell?” (chapter 16), and “Why does God allow the most horrific evils?” (chapter 25). He also had some chapters that are rather unique in a book on Christian apologetics, such as “What if Mary was a child who couldn’t consent to bearing a child? (chapter 11) and “Wouldn’t a heaven that went on forever eventually become hell?” (chapter 22).

The most helpful chapters are probably those between the usual and unusual topics as indicated in the examples just given. The sixth chapter, titled “If the Bible includes immoral laws, how can it be inspired?” and “Why can’t gay people just marry? (chapter 23) are especially helpful. In the former, Rauser writes, “Every Christian should recognize that Jesus is the interpretive key for the Bible” (p. 44). Would that every Christian did, in fact, recognize that!

In both the introduction and the conclusion, which “bookend” the 25 numbered chapters of his book, Rauser commendably emphasizes intellectual honesty/integrity. “As Christians we’re called to a radical life of intellectual honesty,” he writes on pages 5-6. And then on the final page of the conclusion, Mia says to him, “I’ll continue to be that contrarian voice in your head, keeping you intellectually honest” (p. 192).

In these troubled times for the Christian church, the matter of intellectual honesty/integrity is of the highest importance. Rauser, an evangelical apologist, has produced a book clearly with that important matter in mind. Even though I don’t agree with his evangelical position on every point, this is a book I do not hesitate to recommend, and I hope it will be widely read and that the content will be thought about deeply.

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Another Life is Possible (Book Review)

[This is a book review that was posted today, February 8, 2021, on the website of Englewood Review of Books.]

A Review of Another Life is Possible: Insights from 100 Years of Life Together

Clare Stober, Editor (Hardback: Plough Publishing House, 2020).

Reviewed by Leroy Seat

“This is a beautiful book . . . beautiful in the images it gives of simple and harmonious relation with an environment, but beautiful also in its chronicling of lives that have been held and healed in this shared enterprise of the Spirit.” So says Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012, in the Foreword of the excellent new book that briefly chronicles the one-hundred-year history of the Bruderhof (x-xv) but mainly tells the stories of one hundred people who live(d) in Bruderhof communities.

There are vast differences between the “pomp and circumstance” of the Anglican Church and Westminster Cathedral and the simplicity of the Bruderhof in the way they live and worship. But for a century now the Bruderhof, started in 1920 by Eberhart and Emmy Arnold, has maintained an intriguing paradox of separation from the world and engagement with the world. Indeed, as Archbishop Williams remarks, the Bruderhof’s “intellectual hospitality” is “as warm as the literal hospitality the visitor experiences.”

This beautiful book is also a large book—9” x 12”—that was “created” (authored/edited) by Clare Stober (b. 1955) of the Fox Hill Bruderhof community near Walden, New York, and is filled with striking pictures by British photographer Danny Burrows, who traveled around the globe visiting Bruderhof settlements. He submitted over 3,000 photos for use in the book, and about 200 of them are used in this work that is beautiful largely because of Burrows’s photos.

The Bruderhof has an interesting mix of simple, non-pretentious living and an emphasis on high quality, such as is seen in their Community Playthings, children’s furniture they have been building and marketing since the 1950s as a main source of their income. This centennial book about the Bruderhof is beautiful and of high quality, just as are the chairs, tables, and other wooden items they make for children—and there are several references to and pictures of Community Playthings in the book.

Author Stober’s own story is told briefly on pages 17-19. She was a successful entrepreneur who built a graphic design and advertising agency near Washington, D.C., but about thirty years ago she gave that up to join the Bruderhof with no personal income at all. In the book, many residents of Bruderhof communities tell how they left “successful” stations in life to experience the new, fulfilling life that is possible in those communities.

The first of the 100 profiles in Another Life is Possible is, most appropriately, of Eberhard Arnold, who with his wife Emmy founded the first Bruderhof house in 1920. On eight pages with seven photographs, the biography of the Arnolds and the beginning of the Bruderhof in Sannerz, Germany, about 50 miles northeast of Frankfurt, is succinctly told.

Interestingly, the profile following that of the Arnolds is that of Sung Hoon Park, a Korean man. The Bruderhof house in Korea was not established until 2018, and it is still the only one in Asia. Currently, there are more than 3,000 people living in twenty-eight Bruderhof settlements on four continents.

The wide variety of persons profiled in this appealing book includes several past members, such as Latvian Else von Hollander (1885-1932), Bavarian Josef Stängl (1911-93), and Floridian Dorothy Mommsen (1922-2007). On the other hand, several profiles are of young men and women who were born in the 1990s—and there are no members born in the 2000s, for people must be 21 before becoming a member. Most of those people in their 20s grew up as children in a Bruderhof community and then joined after a year or more of living apart from the community, which most do after their 18th birthday.

Interspersed with the stories of those people, past and present, who are a part of Bruderhof communities are pertinent quotes from a wide variety of notable thinkers/writers of the past, such as Mother Teresa, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, Dorothy Day, C.S. Lewis, Leo Tolstoy, and Francis of Assisi, among many others.

The 320-page book is organized around ten different themes, each of about 30 pages. Beginning with “What Money Can’t Buy” and “Working for a Purpose,” the following themes include “Building Justice” and “Seeking and Making Peace” as well as sections dealing with concrete issues, such as “What About Technology?”

Both from the stories and the numerous photos, it is quite evident that the members of the Bruderhof communities around the world love nature and love children. The seventh section of the book (174-205) is “Children and Education.” Profiles are of teachers and students in various parts of the world but especially in Mount Academy, the outstanding Bruderhof high school located about halfway between New York City and Albany. It also includes stories of special needs children, such as Ben, who was born with Down syndrome in 2002, and Luke, who died a few hours after his birth in 2015.

The children and most adults in the Bruderhof communities have little screen time—and yet the Bruderhof actively reaches out to others by means of the Internet. Three web links are given on the final page of the book, one being Plough.com, where a request can be made for the “Daily Dig,” a short quote from a wide variety of writers that is delivered by email every day to those who sign up for it.

Here are the final and important words of the Afterword, written by Paul Winter, the senior pastor of the Bruderhof communities: “Whatever our beliefs, let us hold on to the hope that another life is possible: the life of love, justice, and joy that every soul, in the end, longs to find.”

As Archbishop Williams writes in the Foreword, “The Bruderhof gently holds up a mirror to the Christian world and asks, ‘Why not this?’” That is a good question, and one that presses down on those of us who read and ponder the stories in this centennial book of the Bruderhof and gaze upon the beautiful photography intertwined with the well-worded written text.

This book belongs in every church library and on the coffee tables, or their equivalents, of anyone in the world thirsty for examples of wholesome, peaceful, and beneficial living.

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Does The Bible Teach Male Dominance and Female Submission?

Beth Allison Barr is a professor at Baylor University and the author of a new book titled The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth, due to be published in April.

Barr also wrote an article based on her book that was published on January 17, 2021, in the Dallas Morning News under the title “How the subjugation of women became gospel truth for many evangelical Christians.”

I haven’t yet read Barr’s book, of course, but I have had a couple of women who read the article or read about her book and asked me for comments. Rather than writing something new, I am posting (here) “Does The Bible Teach Male Dominance and Female Submission?” This essay is a revised and enlarged, English version of a public lecture I gave at Seinan Gakuin University on May 23, 1998.

It may be more than you want to read, but I refer you to the article linked to in the previous paragraph for my research and conclusion about what the Bible says, and doesn’t say, abut the subjugation of women.

Of course, there may be some people who would like to read more. To them I recommend “Fed Up with Fundamentalism’s View of Women,” the eighth chapter of my book Fed Up with Fundamentalism: A Historical, Theological, and Personal Appraisal of Christian Fundamentalism (rev. ed, 2020). (This book is available at Amazon.com, but I also have a few copies that I will sell for $10, including postage, and send to those who ask for one. If you are interested, write to me at LKSeat@gmail.com.)

In addition to what I have written and what Barr has written, let me introduce one more recent book: A Marginal Majority: Women, Gender, and a Reimagining of Southern Baptists (America’s Baptists), edited by my daughter Karen Seat and Elizabeth Flowers. Karen is a professor as the University of Arizona and Elizabeth has been a professor at Baylor since 2019. (While this book is too expensive for most individuals to purchase, I hope that it will soon be available in a library near you.)

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Review of “Understanding Japaneseness”

[The following is the review I wrote for Missiology: A Review Journal. It was published in the January 2018 issue of that journal and can be accessed here.]

Understanding Japaneseness: A Fresh Look at Nipponjinron through “Maternal-filial Affection” by Kosuke Nishitani & Michael J. Sherrill. Lanham, MD: Hamilton Books, 2016. 250 pp., paper. $34.99.

This is a book I wish I could have read (and understood) fifty years ago, during my first years as a missionary in Japan. It is a thoroughly researched and quite detailed book, but it is not an easy book to read. Academic scholars will likely appreciate it more than field missionaries, or ordinary expats, in Japan.

The author is an ordained minister who in addition to being a pastor is also a professor at Aoyama Gakuin University, a prestigious Christian school in Tokyo. The editor, who no doubt worked to make the book so readable in English, is also an ordained minister and a professor at the same university. Their painstaking work deserves high marks from all who seek a fuller understanding of the basic way of thinking of Japanese people in general.

My main criticism of the book is of its organization. Rather than building toward a conclusion in which the main thesis of the book is amplified, the final three chapters are about the early history of Japan. Further, each of the chapters has numerous sub-sections, all of seemingly equal importance. Perhaps this also illustrates a common Japanese characteristic: rather than materials being developed in a linear manner, various facets of the issue at hand are presented for consideration.

My criticism notwithstanding, this book contains a wealth of information and interpretation that is valuable for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of “Japaneseness.” The author helps his readers gain that understanding through his analysis of ancient historical works, as well as analysis of the major writings on Nipponjinron (theories/discussions about the Japanese) in recent decades. His unique contribution is in seeing “maternal-filial affection” at the root of Japaneseness.

Given the highly secular nature of current Japanese society, readers may be surprised that in the preface the author avers, “Japanese religiosity is at the center of what it means to be Japanese” (xiii). Then throughout the book he emphasizes that among the Japanese there is “almost religious longing for and consecration of” what the author calls “maternal-filial affection” (128). Consequently, in order to relate better to the Japanese psyche, Christians should stress the maternal aspects of Christianity—such as Shusaku Endo, author of Silence, sought to do.

This book is a rich resource for those who will take the time and expend the energy to read it and to consider its central ideas.

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Summary of Robb Ryerse’s “Running for Our Lives”

[Check out my blog article about Ryerse and his book here.]

Ryerse, Robb. Running for Our Lives: A Story of Faith, Politics, and the Common Good. Westminster John Knox Press, 2020. 165 pp.

“1  You’ve Got to Do This: Rethinking My Call to Ministry and the Gospel”

Robb first heard of a new organization called Brand New Congress on Inauguration Day in 2017. Soon he was contacted by them, asking him to run for Congress. He then tells about his conservative background. When he was sixteen, he “skipped school to call in to Rush Limbaugh’s radio show and actually made it on the air!” (7). He attended a “small, fundamentalist Baptist Bible college.” After college, he spent the next decade serving as pastor of “conservative Baptist churches.”

After reading authors such as Brian McLaren, Doug Pagitt, and Rob Bell, he and his wife decided to move to Fayetteville in northwest Arkansas where in 2006 they started a new church they called Vintage Fellowship.

Robb began adopting more of the social gospel understanding he had been warned about earlier. He noted, with disdain, how it is “not uncommon to hear people who receive government assistance disparaged in sermons in fundamentalist and evangelical churches” (12).

He asserts, “The gospel may not be partisan, but it is unquestionably political” (13).

“2  Congress Camp: Coming Together for a Common Purpose”

Robb went to the Brand New Congress’s “Congress Camp” where people who wanted to run for political office could get training. When he got home he told his wife that he “had met someone I thought could end up a president of the United States someday. Her name was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez” (18).

In this chapter, Robb decries “identity politics,” “the term used to describe the segmentation of people into separate groups and the attempt to appeal to them on issues about which they uniquely care” (19). The problem is: “identity politics reinforces tribalism” (20).

“3  Christian and Candidate: Questions at the Intersection of Church and State”

Robb notes that many Christians argue that “taxation is, at worst, theft, and, at best, compulsory charity” (28). But he asserts, “It is simply impractical to suggest that churches should provide a social safety net because it is ‘not the job’ of the government to do so” (29). He believes that paying his fair share in taxes is one of the many ways he can love his neighbor as himself (30). He and his church “believe that political involvement can and should be a part of what it means to live out the gospel” (30). He says for him “faith is the motivation to build a more just and generous society in which everyone has the same liberty and opportunity” (33).

“4  Don’t Read the Comments Section: Vitriol, Social Media, and Suspending Judgment”

Ryerse launched his campaign for Congress on May 23, 2017. In reflecting on the negative things he often saw on the comments section of internet articles, he wrote, “It took a run for Congress for me to realize that we all need to slow down before making judgments—to practice suspended judgment. . . .

“The key to suspending judgment is empathy for other human beings” (42).

“5  No, Really, I Am a Republican: Partisan Stereotypes and Evolving Orthodoxy”

Ryerse emphasizes that he shares “the deeply ingrained Republican values of liberty from the tyranny of the government, optimism about each person’s opportunity in America, and responsibility and accountability” (46). He also clearly states: “I am a Republican who is profoundly troubled by my party’s nomination and ultimate election of Donald Trump” (47). He was also much unlike most Republicans in other ways.

“Advocating for Medicare for All was a central theme of my campaign. I had to take this position for moral reasons” (51).

“6  The Myth of Objectivity: Bias, Echo Chambers, and Life under the Camera”

Ryerse asserts that “true objectivity is a myth” (60) and writes that “all of us need to remember the myth of objectivity whenever we consume stories, especially those told by the now-ubiquitous twenty-four hour news cycle” (61).

“7  House Parties: Curing Political Cynicism”

Ryerse says, “Campaigning for Congress didn’t make me cynical. It fueled my hope . . . .

“The cure for cynicism is creative engagement in a difficult process for the good of others” (73).

“8  Follow the Money: Treating the Symptoms and Ignoring the Disease”

At the end of his campaign, Ryerse said that the issue that mattered to him most is “the way we fund our political campaigns” (75).

“If you want to understand why your representatives aren’t taking action on the issues that matter most to you, follow the money” (81). He wants three policies to be enacted: elections publicly funded, campaign spending limited, and Citizens United repealed (81-82).

“9  Being a Bivocational Candidate: The Challenge of ‘Regular People’ Running for Office”

“10  The Emotional Roller Coaster: How Authentic Do We Want Our Politicians to Be?”

“Everyone wants to vote for an honest politician. . . . We crave relatability and authenticity in our leaders” (102).

“The health of our democracy depends on having leaders who are willing to be honest about their positions on the issues” (104).

“11  Blood on My Hands: From Silent to Strident on the Issue of Gun Control”

“12  The Only ‘Never Trumper’ in the Room: Insiders, Outsiders, and the Trouble with Tribalism”

“Politics needs to be about more than just winning; it needs to be about how we connect with one another for the common good, even when we come from different points of view and parties.

“. . . For me, the fundamental presupposition of politics is that we must elect leaders who will put the needs of people first” (123).

“13  Why Do You Vote the Way You Do? Personal Interest or the Common Good”

Ryerse clearly states one of his central convictions: “I think people ought to vote based on the common good.

“Letting the common good motivate our Election Day decisions means voting for the candidates who are advocating for policies that will do the most good and have the greatest positive impact. . . .

“The common good should especially be the motivation for Christian voters” (131).

He states that “the most loving thing I can do when I enter the voting booth is to cast my ballot not for my own interests but for the common good” (134).

“14  Election Day: Magic Wands and Mustard Seeds”

Robb writes, “When I think about what we attempted to do in Northwest Arkansas and what my Brand New Congress friends all across the country were attempting to do, it was to bring greater peace and justice into the world. That started off as planting a seed” (140).

“15  Lost: Learning to Rethink Failure”

In this chapter Ryerse writes about how he reacted to the reality of losing decisively. He concludes,

“If we only ever invest ourselves in sure things, we’ll never develop the courage to overcome our fears and dare to do something great. I may have lost, but I won too” (152).

“16  Getting Back on the Campaign Trail: We Have a Lot of Work to Do”

In August 2018, Ryerse became the political director of Vote Common Good (VCG). In November 2018, sixteen of the candidates VCG has supported on their nationwide bus tour were elected to Congress.

He concludes, “I ran for Congress because someone needed to challenge the political establishment in my state and give people the choice and voice they deserve to have. I went on the Vote Common Good tour because religious people need to be reminded that the example and teachings of Jesus call us to care for others above ourselves. But there is still so much work to do. That’s why we can’t give up. We need you now” (161).

 

 

 

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Excerpts from Viktor E. Frankl, “Man’s Search for Meaning”

Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (original Ger., 1946; original Eng. trans., 1959; Boston Press, 2014), 180 pp.

Foreword by Harold S. Kushner (2006)

“Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is one of the great books of our time” (ix).

“Terrible as it was, his experience in Auschwitz reinforced what was already one of his key ideas: Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, or a quest for power, as Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning. The greatest task for any person is to find meaning in his or her life. Frankl saw three possible sources for meaning: in work (doing something significant), in love (caring for another person), and in courage during difficult times. . . .

“Finally, Frankl’s most enduring insight, one that I have called on often in my own life and in countless counseling situations: Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.” (x).

“Experiences in a Concentration Camp” (pp. 3~87)

“I think it was Lessing who once said, ‘There are things which must cause you to lose your reason or you have none to lose.’ An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior” (19).

“Humor was another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation. It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds” (41).

Frankl says that “everything can be taken from a [person] but one thing: the last of the human freedoms— to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way” (62).

“Dostoevski said once, ‘There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.’ These words frequently came to my mind after I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost. It can be said that they were worthy of their sufferings; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom— which cannot be taken away— that makes life meaningful and purposeful” (62-63).

“Any attempt at fighting the camp’s psychopathological influence on the prisoner by psychotherapeutic or psychohygienic methods had to aim at giving him inner strength by pointing out to him a future goal to which he could look forward. Instinctively some of the prisoners attempted to find one on their own. It is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking to the future . . . . And this is his salvation in the most difficult moments of his existence, although he sometimes has to force his mind to the task” (68),

“The prisoner who had lost faith in the future— his future— was doomed. With his loss of belief in the future, he also lost his spiritual hold; he let himself decline and became subject to mental and physical decay” (69).

“As we said before, any attempt to restore a man’s inner strength in the camp had first to succeed in showing him some future goal. Nietzsche’s words, ‘He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how,’ could be the guiding motto for all psychotherapeutic and psychohygienic efforts regarding prisoners” (71-72)

“Logotherapy in a Nutshell” (pp. 91~125)

Logotherapy focuses “on the future, that is to say, on the meanings to be fulfilled by the patient in his future. (Logotherapy, indeed, is a meaning-centered psychotherapy.)“ (92).

“Let me explain why I have employed the term ‘logotherapy’ as the name for my theory. Logos is a Greek word which denotes “meaning.” Logotherapy, or, as it has been called by some authors, ‘The Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy,’ focuses on the meaning of human existence as well as on man’s search for such a meaning. According to logotherapy, this striving to find a meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man. That is why I speak of a will to meaning in contrast to the pleasure principle (or, as we could also term it, the will to pleasure) on which Freudian psychoanalysis is centered, as well as in contrast to the on which Adlerian psychology, using the term ‘striving for superiority,’ is focused” (92-93). will to power

“In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.

“ . . . . It is one of the basic tenets of logotherapy that man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but rather to see a meaning in his life. That is why man is even ready to suffer, on the condition, to be sure, that his suffering has a meaning” (106).

Frankl’s existentialism is expressed in many places, including here: “Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment” (122). And, “Man is capable of changing the world for the better if possible and of changing himself for the better if necessary” (123).

The 1962 version of the book ends with these significant words: “Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips” (p.125).

“POSTSCRIPT 1984: The Case for a Tragic Optimism” (pp. 129~145)

I found this to be an interesting statement: “The truth is that man does not live by welfare alone” (133).

“As logotherapy teaches, “there are three main avenues on which one arrives at meaning in life. The first is by creating a work or by doing a deed. The second is by experiencing something or encountering someone; in other words, meaning can be found not only in work but also in love. . . .

“Most important, however, is the third avenue to meaning in life: even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by so doing change himself. He may turn a personal tragedy into a triumph” (137).

Again, Frankl asserts that if “one cannot change a situation that causes his suffering, he can still choose his attitude” (139).

Frankl avers that “there is no reason to pity old people. Instead, young people should envy them. It is true that the old have no opportunities, no possibilities in the future. But they have more than that. Instead of possibilities in the future, they have realities in the past—the potentialities they have actualized, the meanings they have fulfilled, the values they have realized—and nothing and nobody can ever remove these assets from the past.

“. . . . Just as life remains potentially meaningful under any conditions, even those which are most miserable, so too does the value of each and every person stay with him or her, and it does so because it is based on the values that he or she has realized in the past, and is not contingent on the usefulness that he or she may or may not retain in the present” (142).

 

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Excerpts from Jean Vanier’s book “Becoming Human”

Jean Vanier, Becoming Human (Anansi, 1998, 2008; 166 pp.)

{The following are some of the notable statements the author made through his book, but this is only a compilation of significant sentences, not in any sense a summary of the book or of the individual chapters.}

Introduction

Vanier declares that “life together” in l’Arche “has helped me become more human” (p. 2). He then explains that “to become human implies two realities. It means to be someone, to have cultivated our gifts, and also to be open to others, to look at them not with a feeling of superiority but with eyes of respect” (p. 3).

He ends this brief introduction by saying that he hopes “that more and more of us will seek this road of peacemaking by living in the reality of mutual acceptance, building places of belonging where each one is helped to grow in freedom from fear and the different forms of egoism that can drive us apart, and where we can all learn to celebrate in forgiveness” (p. 4).

I  Loneliness

Vanier avers, “Loneliness is part of being human, because there is nothing in existence that can completely fulfill the needs of the human heart” (p. 7). He goes on to write that there are five principles that have helped him.

“First: all humans are sacred . . . .

“Second: our world and our individual lives are in the process of evolving. . . .

“Third: maturity comes through working with others, through dialogue, and through a sense of belonging and a searching together” (p. 14). Then,

“Fourth: human beings need to be encouraged to make choices, and to become responsible for their own lives and for the lives of others. . . .

“Fifth: in order to make such choices, we need to reflect and to seek truth and meaning” (p. 15).

Later in the chapter, he emphasizes that the “belief in the inner beauty of each and every human being is at the heart of l’Arche, at the heart of all true education and at the heart of being human” (p. 23).

II  Belonging

One of Vanier’s core beliefs is succinctly stated: “We human beings are all fundamentally the same. We all belong to a common, broken humanity” (p. 37). He amplifies: “Weakness, recognized, accepted, and offered, is at the heart of belonging” (p. 40).

Here is another of his basic ideas: “A society that honours only the powerful, the clever, and the winners necessarily belittles the weak” (p. 46).

In one sub-section in this chapter is “Belonging Together in a Pluralistic Society,” Vanier states, “When religion helps us to open our hearts in love and compassion to those who are not of our faith so as to help them to find the source of freedom within their own hearts and to grow in compassion and love of others, then this religion is a source of life” (p. 63). This leads into his third chapter.

III  From Exclusion to Inclusion: A Path of Healing

Vanier writes, “Fear is at the root of all forms of exclusion, just as trust is at the root of all forms of inclusion” (p. 71).

In an important sub-section titled “The Heart,” Vanier asserts: “To treat each person as a person means that we are concerned for them, that we listen to them, and love them and want them to become more whole, free, truthful, and responsible” (p. 86). And the in the following sub-section, “The Way of the Heart,” he says that “people with intellectual disabilities led me from a serious world into a world of celebration, presence, and laughter: the world of the heart” (p. 89).

A later sub-section is a short one titled “To Become Human,” and in it Vanier states: “As the human heart opens up and becomes compassionate, we discover our fundamental unity, our common humanity.” And then he declares that “people with disabilities have taught me what it means to be human” and they have led him “into a new vision of society, a more human society” (p. 97).

IV  The Path to Freedom

Vanier asserts, “To be free is to put justice, truth, and service to others over and above our own personal gain or our need for recognition, power, honour, and success” (p. 108). And later, “Freedom does not judge or condemn but understands and forgives” (p. 118). He ends the chapter with these words: “This is the ultimate secret of liberation: to forgive and to be forgiven, and thus to become free, like little children” (p. 134).

V  Forgiveness

Continuing what he wrote in the last chapter, Vanier says that forgiveness is the “process of removing barriers; it is the process by which we start to accept and to love those who have hurt us. This is the final stage of inner liberation” (p. 136). The chapter, and the book, concludes: “We are simply human beings, enfolded in weakness and in hope, called together to change our world one heart at a time” (p. 163).

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