Thursday, July 29, 2010

Book Review: Bonhoeffer, Althaus-Reid, and Fryer

Marcella Althaus-Reid's The Queer God

Routledge, 2003
Althaus-Reid was senior lecturer in Christian Ethics and Practical Theology at the University of Edinburgh, and the author of several ground-breaking books, including Indecent Theology. She passed away in early 2009 while she was in her mid-fifties. This is a huge loss to the academic community as I can only imagine what amazing new things she could have contributed. What a pioneering woman! She will certainly be missed!

This book takes a post-modern, queer-theorist look at God. God is described as sensual, sexual, omnisexual. What Althaus-Reid attempts to do is to describe the kenosis (emptying) of the heterosexual God as a suicidal move, one which allows the queer God to come out of the closet. This is not literal, of course, but rather expressing the hope that theology can leave behind the oppressive heterosexual God (who she describes as always having an erect penis, the Viagra God), and allow for alternative ways of seeing God to come forth. No longer is God the one who is destroying Sodom, but God is the one who we meet at the gate of Sodom.

Althaus-Reid uses many post-colonial theologies from South-America, and is clearly influenced by deconstruction, liberation theology, and feminism. What she hopes to inspire is a new theology from the margins of sexual deviance, where God is no longer restricted by heterosexuality, and where those who are not heterosexual are no longer kept from experiencing God (or, being allowed to experience a God other than one that condemns them).

The book was mind-bending for me to read. It, pardon my language, but it fucks with you. It allows you, as a stranger, to meet God as a stranger; it allows you as you are to not be a stranger and to see that God is not a stranger, either.

That said, the book was very hard for me to get through. In fact, it took me the entire summer to read. It is in some places beautifully written, but, in others, very academic as she packs thought after amazing thought into a page, making you have to stop after each small section to process and reflect on what you just read. A great book, but certainly a little too academic for some. I give this book an 8.75 out of 10, only because it was so hard to get through at times. But even the heavy academic stuff was paradigm-shift inducing!

Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Christ the Center

I read an old edition, translated by John Bowden; Harper & Row, 1960. I hope there are more recently translated editions out there!
Dietrich Bonhoeffer just... I can't talk about his life in a short little intro paragraph. I hate Wikipedia, but you can check him out here for a fairly decent article explaining his life.

At any rate, Christ the Center is not actually a book written by Bonhoeffer, but is instead a Christology complied from lectures he gave while teaching at the Confessing Church seminary. It's kind of dry compared to a lot of his other writing, but that could be the result of the translator or the compiler or who knows.

The book itself is a call for the church to make Christ the center of their theology, ministry, and mission once more. Obviously, the 1930s German church was not good at this.

One of the most amazing parts about the book is Bonhoeffer's notion of Christ "pro me," that is, Jesus is only Christ for me. Christ is not Christ in and of Christ's self, but Christ is Christ in relationship. Yet, Jesus is also Jesus throughout time and space. It's an interesting concept, and it's hard to do it justice in a little paragraph.

I read this book at the same time I read Carter Heyward's Saving Jesus From Those Who Are Right. The two books present quite an awesome argument with one another. I tend to lean more towards Heyward's understanding, of a much more relaxed Christology that is based on mutuality. But, Bonhoeffer does say some pretty awesome things. He also makes an ecological claim, stating that "Like history, nature suffers from the loss of tits meaning and its freedom. It longs for a new freedom.... The word of preaching is that enslaved nature is redeemed in hope.... In the sacraments they are freed from their dumbness and proclaim directly to the believer the new creative Word of God. They no longer need [our] interpretation" (66-7). I thought that was quite the revolutionary thing for Bonhoeffer to say in 1930s, and certainly falls upon my ears in this time of ecological crises in a powerful light (though, I would argue that precisely our thinking that nature needs our interpretation is part of what caused the ecological crisis in the first place).

Overall, it's a decent book. This translation uses exclusive language both about humanity and God, which I find offensive, though it is also reflective of both the period it was written and the period in which it was composed. I certainly hope that newer translations are more inclusive in language. This book I would recommend for someone who is interested in Bonhoeffer's Christology, otherwise, I wouldn't recommend it, except perhaps for the "Christ pro me" concept. For the modern reader, though, this book lacks the power I believe it had in its original context. But, that may just be me. I give the book a 6/10.

Kelly A. Fryer's Reclaiming the "C" Word: Daring to be Church Again

Augsburg Fortress, 2006.
Fryer has become somewhat of a celebrity in ELCA circles, her break-through book Reclaiming the "L" Word: Renewing the Church From its Lutheran Core becoming a best seller (by Augsburg Fortress standards), being used for Bible studies, book studies, council devotions, sermon series, and much more. And then, of course, she shocked everyone by resigning from ELCA roster and her position at Luther and coming out of the closet as a lesbian (for which she receives my full support and prayers! Power to you, sister!).

At any rate, this book, as was Reclaiming the "L" Word, stunning, brilliant, and eye-opening. It calls Christian Churches everywhere, but especially us Lutherans, to take a good look in the mirror and see if we are really acting the way God's church should be acting. In other words, are we too comfortable being a church "in here," too comfortable in our complacency, to make a difference as a church "out there," changing the world to be a better place. Fryer uses the compelling story of the early church from the book of Acts to show how far we have strayed from being the dynamic church, led by LAY LEADERS, NOT JUST PASTORS, to tell the story of Jesus, and, led by God, care for the world (God's work, our hands, anyone?).

The book itself is humorous, easy-to-read (a nice break from all the heavy stuff I read in seminary), and perfectly designed for personal or group devotions or a book study.

Fryer apologizes in the beginning of the book that for some, this book may not go far enough, and for others, too far. I think her words are honest and necessary for today's church. I would venture out into much deeper waters myself, but this book provides the perfect opportunity for those too afraid of drowning to wade out a safe distance from shore (but still, getting them off their butts on the beach and into the water!). However, it should be noted that while Fryer's language about humanity is certainly inclusive, her language about God still is exclusively male. I give it a 9 out of 10.


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