Friday, January 28, 2011

Children of the incarcerated: What will happen to them?

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Kevin, photo by Howard Zehr
In 2007, when I was co-facilitating a writers' workshop in a women's correctional facility, one topic that consistently came up in writing and discussion with the group was the deep pain associated with the break-up of families. Many of the the women were mothers who had lost access to their own children because of drug or alcohol arrests and subsequent incarceration. I don't wish to ignore the wrong committed by these women, just as I don't wish to ignore the psychosocial realities which fostered an environment for their wrongdoing to take place. But even while keeping these things in view, it was impossible not to feel compassion as they shared through sobs and tears, their stories of love and loss.

A new book of photographs and stories, What Will Happen To Me?, co-authored by one of my mentors here at EMU, Howard Zehr, focuses the lens on the other side of these kinds of situations: on 30 children whose parents are incarcerated. The book is co-authored with Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz, a restorative justice practitioner and trainer working for Mennonite Central Committee/MCC in their Office of Crime and Justice.

Since 1 in 15 black children in the United States have a parent in prison, African American magazine, Ebony,  ran a story this week on the new book:
‘What Will Happen To Me?’: Restorative Justice Pioneer Takes Look At The Impact Of Parental Incarceration On Children In New Book
by Margena A. Christian
These move through society unnoticed. They harbor a secret they tell no one for a myriad of emotions consume them. Shame. Anger. Confusion. Isolation. They aren’t alone but one wouldn’t know it because people don’t like to discuss “the secret.”
As the article notes at the end, Howard was the first white student to attend Morehouse College, a traditionally black school in Atlanta. That a white Mennonite from Indiana did this at the height of the Civil Rights movement is still striking today. Howard once told me that his decision to attend Morehouse was partly influenced by John Howard Yoder, which I of course thought was totally awesome!

Friday, January 21, 2011

A journey to Yoder and beyond

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Don't write this guy off...
The first time I heard the name "John Howard Yoder" out loud, in conversation, was the middle of March, 2008, not even three years ago. It was uttered in the form of a question - Had I heard of him? (No.) - from Sara Wenger Shenk, who was at the time associate dean of Eastern Mennonite Seminary/EMS (now the president of sister school, Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary). We were walking down the hallway on the top floor of the seminary building, having just walked past the office of prof. Mark Thiessen Nation. It's only in hindsight now that I appreciate the significance of having heard Yoder's in such close proximity to Mark's. (More on that later.)

This conversation and others were part of my family's campus visit trip from Iowa to Virginia and the campus of Eastern Mennonite. This trip was the first time I ever had face-to-face encounters with Mennonites, which might be surprising if one is familiar with the history of my tradition, the Church of the Brethren, having one of its historical-theological poles staked in the Anabaptist tradition along with Mennonites. I often refer to Brethren as the "little cousins" to the Mennonites. So read on after the break for a bit of reflection on how I came to know and began to appreciate the theological project of John Howard Yoder...

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Companion to "The Butcher's Apprentice"

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
In a long post yesterday, The Butcher's Apprentice, I argued that "people should have an awareness and respect for the cycle that sustains corporeal existence." This point was being illustrated by my recent experience of butchering pigs. But it could also be illustrated by way of this classic Saturday Night Live commercial from the early 90s which has stayed with me. Enjoy...

Favorite quote from Clucky: "Hey, kids, how's the me?"

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Butcher's Apprentice

From Harrisonburg, VA
Photo by Andrea Nissolino
With a tentative push my index finger dug into the flesh of the pig, searching for a bundle of tendons - the "leaders" - in one of its hind legs. Got it. Tugging them out a bit, I slipped in the S-hook but my first-timer anxiety amidst the surrounding men - only one of whom I actually knew - caused me to fumble the hook and it dropped to the ground. Frustrated, I let out a groan. Behind me, the butcher gently said, "Don't worry. We learn by doing."

His name is Ike and he's an 81 year-old retired Mennonite pastor. Fifty years ago he came to this little holler at the foot of the mountains lining the western edge of the Shenandoah Valley. Many of the people around us, the locals, have known Ike since they were old enough to remember. He displayed the qualities of a wise master and for a day I was his apprentice. In the course of a day's work butchering pigs, though, he gave me much more than a lesson on the work at hand. Ike's approach to ministering to the community has for years included being the local butcher.

"When you give a sermon, people might remember a phrase or two, maybe a story you told to illustrate the Scripture. But if you come out here," Ike said gesturing at our surroundings with his knife, "people remember you. They trust you."

In this post I'll do some narrative theologizing (more narrating than theologizing) on Ike's long career as pastor/butcher, plus butchering as an analogy to the Christian faith, and finally the experience in general as a somewhat graphic illustration of the gift that is life. So you've been warned: This is not a post for those with weak intestinal fortitude (or PETA people)...

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Icons: "They looked at me."

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
St. Maximilian; iconographer: Jerry Holsopple
Last fall I had a series of posts that doubled as homework for a class called "The Religious Imagination in Contemporary Culture." The professor, Jerry Holsopple, had spent the previous year on sabbatical in Lithuania, teaching college courses and being trained to write icons in the Orthodox tradition.

Near the end of the our class last fall, his iconography exhibit opened on the EMU campus. In addition to the exhibit, Jerry did a University Colloquium lecture in which he challenged the Anabaptist tradition (and other word/text-heavy Protestant traditions with iconoclastic skeletons in the closet) to consider the significance of Orthodox tradition of iconography, one that doesn't treat artistic expressions as the property of the artist but rather as an article for the worshiping life of the church. And not only the piece itself but the process - start to finish, idea to reality, studio to cathedral - is a theological act within the context of the community of faith, the church. Given the traditionally strong ecclesiology of Anabaptism, this seems to be a challenge worth taking seriously.

The series of videos after the break was done by EMU undergrads in a film class taught by another one of my instructors, Paulette Moore. They are very well-done, consisting of interviews with Jerry as well as simulations of the process of writing an icon. Awesome stuff that certainly captivated my religious imagination...

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Hallelujah to the coming pop-cultural cataclysm!

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
[Author's note: For those handful of people who get e-mail notifications when I post, I apologize for flooding your inbox today. I was sans laptop, deliberately, for two weeks over our Christmas break in the Midwest and I'm obviously releasing some pent-up blogual tension. This is the last one today, I promise. And a heads-up which is, for me, now in hindsight: I seem to be suffering from an alliterative tic in this post, especially involving the letter "c."]

Comedian and soon-to-be (as in tomorrow) author, Patton Oswalt, has a simply superb article up on Wired's website, which I heartily commend to conscious and critical culture-consumers: Wake Up, Geek Culture. Time to Die

The hilarious video embedded in the article is a great summary of his observations and arguments, which revolve around geek culture becoming mainstream over the past 25 years and now its being hyper-distributed since the Internet's inception, maturation, and proliferation. Check it out:

The closing stanza is a triumph:
What the hell were we thinking? We've gotta rebuild this.
We've gotta be careful. You gotta have solid foundations.
You can't throw zombies and sexy vampires into everything.
Even though it seems like it's going to be a delicious breakfast just can't do it.
We're gonna do it right this time. ...Oh god, I need a gummie bear.

Top 5 books of 2010

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Okay, so 2010 is so two days ago but I'd still like to throw out a list of the five books that rocked my intellectual world last year, which I've come to think of as "the year my brain exploded." As a grad student, my life is of course filled to the breaking point with reading. Seminary-related books will of course dominate this list but I try to be cross-disciplinary and also keep some fiction in my diet to keep my creative brain healthy.

I've talked about a number of the following books and/or their authors, so I'll try not to blab on about them in this post. These are in order of mind-blowingness...
  1. A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments by David Foster Wallace (Back Bay, 1998) - I've mentioned Wallace on here a few times this year and his books have been consistently in my reading diet for six months and he still (even just today) makes me think "this guy was a genius." His depth, bredth, and wit is stunning. This book came second in my encounters with Wallace and is easily the most significant I've read ye. I'm thrilled to have a good friend who is an English professor who reads/studies/teaches DFW, so I can look forward to more from Wallace for the foreseeable future.
  2. To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Davison Hunter (Oxford, 2010) - Hunter's work has informed a number of posts this fall, including a significant engagement with this book in an academic paper. He has helped me see with new clarity the problematic ways in which Christians in America think about and engage the broader culture. Profoundly helpful.
  3. The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict by William T. Cavanaugh (Oxford, 2009) - I quickly read this book between the spring and summer terms and so didn't get the chance to carefully take notes as I usually do with academic books. This bummed me out numerous times for the rest of the year as I was constantly thinking back to the insights that Cavangaugh offers in this book and wanting to reference them in papers. Luckily, I'm reading this book again this spring for a class and am getting my own copy, so it will be back up front very soon. Here's my short review from earlier this year.
  4. World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age by C. Kavin Rowe (Oxford, 2009) - As I said in my lengthy engagement with this book in an academic paper (same one in which I work with Hunter, linked above), there are very few people to whom I would recommend this book. It's for hardcore theology+biblical studies nerds only, but it introduced me to some compelling philosophical work from Charles Taylor and synthesized that with an equally compelling way to read the book of Acts.
  5. Tie between: Another City: An Ecclesiological Primer for a Post-Christian World by Barry A. Harvey and Beyond Sectarianism: Re-Imagining Church and World by Philip D. Kenneson (both from Trinity Press, 1999) - I read these books roughly at the same time for two different classes in the spring. In many ways they set the stage for all the other books on this list save Wallace's. They are both part of a series called "Christian Mission and Modern Culture" whose short (< 100 pgs) books are excellent primers and still read fresh for being over a decade old. Here's my short review of Harvey's book from back in February.

On Brethren beliefs and practices

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Last summer I embarked on a long, intense directed study at EMS on Brethren beliefs and practices with Jeff Bach, who is the director of the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College, a school affiliated with the Church of the Brethren, the tradition which raised me and in which I'm currently a licensed minister. The study was marked with personal trials for both Jeff and I and ended up lasting quite a bit longer than both of us had intended. But through the personal and academic trials came tremendous learning of my tradition, and I wouldn't trade the experience of the directed study for anything.

So after the break you'll find the long (28 pg.) paper that came out of this class which explores four theological topics with respect to the Brethren:
  • Christology
  • Ecclesiology (both a critique and a constructive argument)
  • (Non-)Sacramental theology
  • Nonconformity to the world