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.

Animals as Religious Subjects :: Book/Chapter Announcement

This news will be old in the timeframe of social media, but still fresh in the timeframe of books. A little more than a month ago, T&T Clark released an edited volume entitled Animals as Religious Subjects: Transdisciplinary Perspectives. The essays collected within were (by and large) presented at a conference by the same title that took place in the summer of 2011 near the University of Chester. The book was edited by Celia Deanne-Drummond, Rebecca Artinian Kaiser, and David Clough, to whom I am very grateful.

My gratitude is due because of the inclusion of an essay of mine entitled “‘Marvel at the Intelligence of Unthinking Creatures'”: Contemplative Animals in Gregory of Nazianzus and Evagrius of Pontus.” The quote in the title is from Gregory’s 28th Oration, and the essay examines this “unthinking intelligence” of animals, which Gregory and other late-antique authors often attribute to an externalized rationality, an infusion of the divine Logos. With Giorgio Agamben’s “anthropological machine” providing the framework for analysis, my essay argues that what Gregory and Evagrius (among others) describe as the goal of (human) contemplation–the very height of human spirituality–cannot be so easily differentiated from this externalized animal rationality.

There are many other excellent essays in the volume. Essays particularly helpful for my own interests were Tim Ingold’s chapter on “Walking with Dragons”; Aaron Gross’s chapter on “The Study of Religion after the Animal”; and Ingvild Sælid Gilhus’s chapter “From Sacrifices to Symbols: Animals in Late Antiquity and Early Christianity.” Additionally, David Clough has an excellent essay on the theological uses of classification schemes, and Charles Camosy, a Fordham professor with whom I have worked here and there, has an essay engaging with Peter Singer, putting forth a Roman Catholic argument that personhood cannot be categorically denied to non-human animals.

The book is prohibitively expensive for most people, but those with the ability to order books at their library will likely find the volume to be helpful.

reading groups in the sanctorum communio :: Grenz on Tillich

A few years ago, Stan Grenz passed away, and for reasons which remain unknown to me large portions of his theological and philosophical library was put up for sale in the Regent College library. Most of his books were sold for a dollar or two; I remember picking up his copy of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind for 75¢. I picked up as many of these volumes as I could, partly because of my respect for Grenz, partly because he had a damn fine theological library.

This week, reading Grenz’s copy of Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology (a first edition hard-cover from 1951), I was treated to the joy of reading along with Grenz. I never had the chance to meet him in person, but I think I’ve gotten to know him a little bit by reading Tillich in his footsteps.

His underlining is sparse but very even-handed (he almost certainly used a straightedge), and his marginal notes are even more rare. He captures the key passages with a marginal bracket around the text, and seems to be, so far as I can tell, a very careful reader.  Strikingly, he never once expressed disagreement with Tillich through his notation, though there were plenty of passages that Grenz surely found objectionable. Of course I found myself spending a little extra time mulling over passages which he emphasized, looking for some meaning that I’d missed on my first pass.

He never intended it, but he found another way to guide my reading—a unexpected legacy for which I’m the grateful heir.