2017 Books

I find myself in a season of renewing old habits. Accordingly, as in years past, here are the books that I read cover-to-cover in 2017. For me, these lists are a confession of my finitude (I always feel that I should have read more and read these books earlier) and, simultaneously, a reminder that, despite all its apparent solitude, reading is always a social practice. The books that I found particularly illuminating or thought provoking are indicated by blue-colored text. Even though my “to-read” stack has grown beyond what I’m likely to work through in 2018, I’d be glad to hear about the books that caught your attention in the last year.

Theology / Religious Studies

Jay Emerson Johnson, Peculiar Faith: Queer Theology for Christian Witness, 236.

Adam Kotsko, The Prince of this World, 225.

Karmen MacKendrick, The Matter of Voice: Sensual Soundings, 205.

Ted A. Smith, Weird John Brown: Divine Violence and the Limits of Ethics, 204.

Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, 240.

Daniel Capper, Learning Love from a Tiger: Religious Experiences with Nature, 305.

Shawn Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being, 186.

Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, 191.

Katie Walker Grimes, Fugitive Saints: Catholicism and the Politics of Slavery, 179.

John R. Sachs, The Christian Vision of Humanity, 112.

Ilia Delio, The Unbearable Wholeness of Being: God, Evolution and the Power of Love, 228.

Eric Hall, God: Everything You Ever Needed to Know about the Almighty, 185.

Vincent Lloyd and Andrew Prevot, eds., Anti-Blackness and Christian Ethics, 210.

Philosophy / Critical Theory 

Matthew Calarco, Thinking through Animals: Identity, Difference, Indistinction, 82.

Gregoire Chamayou, Manhunts: A Philosophical History, 191.

Vinciane Despret, What Would Animals Say if We Asked the Right Questions, 249.

Mark Rowlands, The Philosopher and the Wolf: Lessons from the Wild on Love, Death, and Happiness, 246.

Eric Santner, Creaturely Life: Rilke, Benjamin, Sebald, 219.

Cary Wolfe, Before the Law: Humans and Other Animals in a Biopolitical Frame, 143.

Jamie Lorimer, Wildlife in the Anthropocene: Conservation after Nature, 284.

Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, 168.

Nicole Shukin, Animal Capital: Rendering Life in Biopolitical Times, 306.

Marc Bekoff, Rewilding our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, 198.

Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, 365.

History / Historiography 

Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Trade, 270.

Biography / Memoir 

Dave Foreman, Confessions of an Eco-Warrior, 229.

Fiction/Literature 

Brian Doyle, Mink River, 319.

Kevin Barry, There are Little Kingdoms, 154.

Brian Doyle, The Plover, 311.

Sherman Alexie, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist-Fight in Heaven, 242.

Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, 340.

Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things, 321.

Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, 505.

Brian Doyle, Martin Marten, 310.

Science / Science Writing

Rachel Carson, The Sea Around Us, 250.

Ancient/Medieval texts 

Gregory of Nyssa, Homilies on the Lord’s Prayer, 30.

Gregory of Nyssa, Great Catechism, 100.

Gregory of Nyssa, Homilies on Ecclesiastes, 60.

 

Eulogy for Mark Paul Meyer

My father passed away during the night of Sunday, October 22nd. I know that I am very fortunate to have had–for all his flaws and struggles–a truly wonderful father. During the last year of his life, my father was the recipient of a heart transplant, effectively healing a degenerative heart condition that he had lived with for twenty years. That heart transplant gave him the chance to return to activities that he had loved and excelled at in his younger years—he once won a marathon with a time of 2hrs. 37m.—and push himself again. The last day of his life, he ran a half-marathon, placed 3rd in his age bracket, had dinner with his brother and my mother, and watched the World Series game. It was, in every respect, the perfect last day for my father. I would like to share the eulogy that I wrote for my dad. The text is below, along with a video of the service. The eulogy begins at 29:40. 

Every life stretches across minutes, days, and years. Every life—my dad’s no less—ends too soon. We want more time together. But in addition to its measure in length, time has moods, it has a feel, it has variable atmospheres and climates. One day’s time differs from the next, and your mode of moving with time differs from mine. So even as I ache for more time, I want to share a few words about the intensity, the trajectory, the weight of my dad’s flight through time and how it has shaped my own.

My dad never let his timeline go slack. He was always pushing further, running faster, making a bigger difference for others. From the viewpoint of the stars, he spun 24,734 circles on this earth, on his way through 67-and-a-half loops around the sun, but he pulled that line as tight as he could. His restlessly determined mood or mode of movement in time marked everything that he did. He lived hard enough that he wore out two hearts, at least two hearts.

Dad approached risk face-on and clear-eyed, without hesitation. His last day is only a perfect parable of so much that went before. Were there risks to running 3rd in his age bracket in a half-marathon, ten months out from a heart transplant? Sure. But if your new heart will pump in its cage, if your legs will regain some of their former strength, if you can train again to float over pavement, then how can you say no? How could you say no to flying, to learning Greek and Spanish, to starting a new career in your sixties, becoming a pastor and a prison chaplain? How could you say no to a heart transplant? Dad could be gracious and empathetic with others, but he always pushed himself—in physical endeavors, in moral character, in generosity—he held himself to a higher standard.

As I’ve thought about my dad over the years, and more intensely in the last week, I think that his orientation to time and to risk are among the ways that he influenced me most deeply. He would want to make this occasion count, to make these moments as thick, as rich, as impactful as possible. He would want to share some message. I cannot speak for him, but I can tell you what I’ve learned from him and ask you to carry it forward. As he said often enough to my brothers and I, “Let this be a lesson to you.”

Death is not the worst thing. Death is not the enemy. It never was and it isn’t now. Dad outran the smallness of fear with a clear-eyed resolve to pull his time tight. Death is only an end, and perhaps not even a dead end. There are cramped, stingy, self-enclosed, bigoted, and fearful ways of living that make too much of death. It is a mistake, even if a very common one, to give life over to death too soon by assuming that your fate is established, that your character cannot change, that you have nothing more to offer those around you, that your fellow-travelers are too different to be neighbors. Death is not the worst thing because, for all its terrible power, it can never un-live the life that has been lived, it can never un-love the love that has been shared, it can never claw back the adventures that make us who we are, it can never rub out the lines etched across time’s surface.

I am a professional theologian—whatever that is—and some people assume that I am supposed to know things, to have answers. Mostly, I try to help people ask better questions. “Where do we go when we die?” is not, I think, a particularly helpful question. But here is what I know. Mark Paul Meyer is enfolded in the life of God. His hunger, his love, his ferocious hope, his relentless determination—they’re all too big for death to swallow. An echo of eternity among us, he lived his time with an intensity that could never be contained in his days. Death is not the worst thing, it is only an end. We, together here today, are testimony to that truth. And so, as our Eastern Orthodox sisters and brothers say, “Memory eternal, memory eternal, memory eternal.”

The Ineradicable Supersessionism of the Christian Imagination

This piece is cross posted over at AUFS; please comment there (rather than here) if you feel compelled to do so. 

As Willie James Jennings’ title would suggest, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race is a book situated at the interface between theology and history. My work hovers around the same intersection, so I came to Jennings’ book with strong interests both in the content of the argument and the method of its movements. Jennings has given us a very rich book, one that uncovers the historical and theological reasons that the stratified logics of race and colonialism have overrun—one should almost say without exception— the purported unity of Christian communion. Jennings’ text works to uncover the theological operations that underwrite the history of the last half-millennium—in which racial difference has functioned as justification for conversion by violent coercion and enslavement, and in which white Christians have regarded social, economic, and political parity for Christians of color as unthinkable, unnatural, and unnecessary. The logic of race is so deeply enmeshed in Western subject-formation that it has overpowered the political implications of theological and sacramental affirmations—e.g. that Christians share the same baptism and eat at the same table. In other words, Jennings asks: Why does whiteness trump Jesus’ body?

Jennings’ book works out a complex and multifaceted historical answer to this question—a question that white theology has repressed with hasty acknowledgments of the generalized horrors of the past.  Jennings’ book has been rightly recognized as a significant contribution to academic theology (the book won the 2015 Louisville Grawemeyer award in Religion) and has been discussed widely. Jennings’ readings of the theological formation of racial discourse in early modern and colonial authors are nuanced, careful, and illuminating. Alongside my deep appreciation for Jennings’ critical work on early modern texts and figures, however, I find myself stuck on a few questions regarding his main theological argument. In particular, I wonder if Jennings’ theological utilization of the concept of supersessionism has obscured the specifics of its history, such that Jennings inadvertently fails to escape the trajectory of Christian supersessionism even as he correctly diagnoses it as a lynchpin of Western racialized anthropology. Continue reading “The Ineradicable Supersessionism of the Christian Imagination”

Book/Chapter Announcement: Divinanimality: Animal Theory, Creaturely Theology

Divinanimality Cover

The book has been out for a few months now, but I’ve yet to make an announcement here. Divinanimality: Animal Theory, Creaturely Theology came out of Drew University’s Transdisciplinary Theology Conference. The handsome book was edited by Stephen Moore (of Drew University) and features a range of essays. Personal highlights for me were the chapters written by Denise Kimber Buell, Beatrice Marovich, and Stephen Moore. I am honored to have a chapter in the volume: “The Logos of God and the End of Humanity: Giorgio Agamben and the Gospel of John on Animality as Light and Life.”  Working from the prologue to John’s gospel, my chapter argues for an understanding of the incarnation that undermines anthropological exceptionalism rather than supporting it. In other words, I am working to refute the notion—heard commonly enough in Christian circles—that human beings are the most important creatures on earth because God became human. I engage briefly with Athanasius and Gregory of Nazianzus along the way. I also venture a more synthetic reading of Derrida and Agamben on “the animal question” than is normal in critical animal theory circles.

One of the benefits of posting this announcement a bit late is that I can link to a blog post by Adam Roberts on my essay. His summary is accurate and his critical questions are on target, so far as I am concerned. I have a response posted in the comments. He has a few other posts on the volume, which can be found here.

2014 Books

One wouldn’t know it from the amount of activity here on this rather neglected corner of the internet, but 2014 was a very tumultuous year for me—as it was for many people across the U.S. My personal ups and downs pale in comparison to the events surrounding the murders of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Renisha McBride, Darien Hunt, and others, and the rightful anger that followed these callous displays of the latent white supremacist millieu of American life. To my mind, these are among the most significant events of 2014 in the U.S., and it feels a bit trite even to mention them here in passing. But silence is rarely the better path, so I would rather place 2014’s anger and mourning at the surface once more.

Personally, 2014 brought news of a child in January and the birth of a daughter in September. It brought me to the completion of my dissertation and to my graduation from Fordham with a Ph.D. in Theology in May. It brought a move from the Bronx to Denver in June, followed by a second move (within Denver) when our apartment massively flooded in November. Days after our flood, I was in San Diego for interviews at the AAR/SBL. I have mixed feelings about 2014 and, all in all, I’m glad it’s over. In many ways I’m still recovering. Take that as explanation for posting a 2014 retrospective two weeks into 2015.

One of the few traditions I’ve kept up here is to post my reading for the year. These are the books that I read cover to cover. I’ve put in boldface the books which I found the most insightful, most moving, or most useful for my work. The classification scheme is my own and is (like all taxonomies) somewhat arbitrary. Of course, I welcome comments on these books or books that other folks found particularly rich in 2014.

Theology / Religious Studies:

Gerard Loughlin (ed.), Queer Theology: Rethinking the Western Body.

Thomas Merton, Raids on the Unspeakable.

Ronald E. Osborn, Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering.

Benjamin Dunning, Christ Without Adam: Subjectivity and Sexual Difference in the Philosophers’ Paul.

Elizabeth A. Johnson, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love.

Delores S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk.

Daniel L. Pals, Eight Theories of Religion.

Stephen Moore, Divinanimality: Animal Theory, Creaturely Theology.

Philosophy / Critical Theory:

Catherine Malabou, Ontology of the Accident: An Essay on Destructive Plasticity.

Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory.

Gilles Deleuze, Bergsonism.

Souleymane Bachir Diagne, African Art as Philosophy: Senghor, Bergson, and the Idea of Negritude.

Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception.

Giorgio Agamben, The Sacrament of Language: An Archaeology of the Oath.

Mary Midgley, Animals and Why they Matter.

Andrew Norris (ed.), Politics, Metaphysics, and Death: Essays on Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer.

Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive.

Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth.

George Yancy, Look a White!: Philosophical Essays on Whiteness.

James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son.

Saidiya V. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America.

History / Historiography:

Virginia Burrus, Saving Shame: Martyrs, Saints, and other Abject Subjects. Theodore W. Jennings, Plato or Paul: The Origins of Western Homophobia.

Biography / Memoir:

Rob Delaney, Wife, Sister, Mother, Falcon, Yardstick, Turban, Cabbage.

Science:

E.O. Wilson, The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth.

Fiction/Literature:

Thomas Pynchon, Vineland.

Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

Thomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge.

James Baldwin, Another Country.

Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice.

Don DeLillo, White Noise.

Self-Help/Self-sabotage:

Penny Simkin, The Birth Partner.

Making public one’s reading list as an academic feels, to me at least, vaguely shameful. There is a open record here for people to see all the things that I haven’t read (and should have). That’s one of the reasons that I’ve kept up the practice—to stare down my own sense of myself as a fraud, my own looming imposter syndrome. In the vein of shameful confessions, I’ll add to my explicit shame. I made a concerted effort (or, what I thought was a concerted effort) to read more books by women and people of color this year, to sit with a broader range of perspectives and do my own thinking with that multiplicity of voices ringing in my ears. It was a valuable endeavor and one that I mean to continue in 2015. Nevertheless, a significant majority of the books that I read this year (20 of 32) were written by white men. On the other hand, 7 of 32 were written by women and 7 of 32 were written by people of color. If I had to guess, I’d venture that those proportions are not enormously out of line with the demographics of the American academic scene. Still, at the end of the year, I’m embarrassed that my concerted effort is not better reflected in the demographics of the authors above. Nevertheless, the voices of Yancy, Hartman, Fanon, and others are still ringing disproportionately in my ears.

The Bible and Posthumanism: Book/Chapter Announcement

Bible and Posthumanism Cover

Some readers may be interested in a recently published book—The Bible and Posthumanism, edited by Jennifer Koosed. The volume includes an essay of mine entitled “Gregory of Nyssa and Jacques Derrida on the Human-Animal Distinction in the Song of Songs.” I have yet to read through the whole book, but I am especially looking forward to essays from Denise Kimber Buell, Stephen Moore, and Benjamin Dunning. I’m particularly honored that my essay sits directly next to Ben Dunning’s insofar as his intellectual generosity and meticulously patient criticism have played an unparalleled role in my own thinking, writing, and research at Fordham.

Here’s an excerpt that provides a sense for the essay’s argument:

Thinking with Derrida, I argue that Gregory’s discourse on animality remains irresolvably conflicted. Although he labors toward it, Gregory’s theology cannot finally abide a categorical distinction between humanity and animality. The theological anthropology informing Gregory’s anagogical exegesis of the Song of Songs “short-circuits” so that human animality is necessary to reach the deepest meaning of Scripture and the summits of spiritual ascent, despite Gregory’s more explicit claims that spiritual transformation entails the transcendence of humanity beyond animality. Animality remains integral to Gregory’s reading of the Song of Songs, not simply because of the pervasive animal metaphors within the text under his consideration, but on account of his understanding of theological exegesis and the role of desire in spiritual progress.

The Limits of the Thinkable :: Coming Tomorrow!

Late notice here, but if you’re anywhere near New York City tomorrow, Fordham will be hosting its annual Graduate Theology conference. The conference title is “The Limits of the Thinkable: Religious Experience and the Apophatic Impulse between Antiquity and Modernity.” There is a full schedule posted here. The conference will run from 10am to 6pm in Tognino Hall, (the second floor of Duane Library, above the Theology Department). Catherine Keller will be speaking at 5:00, and all are welcome to attend. Folks from the conference will also be headed out to a pub in the neighborhood after the conference to continue the conversation. Hope to see you there!