Sunday, April 27, 2008

April 27, 2008

I have not enjoyed a book as much as Debby Applegate’s The Most Famous Man in America (Doubleday, 2006) for which she won a Pulitzer Prize. It is the biography of Henry Ward Beecher for whom the Beecher Lectures in preaching at Yale are named. He was the son of the New England Calvinist Henry Lyman Beecher and brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe of Uncle Tom’s Cabin renown. He was known as a great orator who after serving churches in the West (Ohio and Indiana) returned to be the fist and most famous pastor of the Plymouth Church He preached a ‘gospel of love’ over against the rigid Calvinism of his father in Brooklyn Heights and joined battle (eventually) on the side of the angels in the issues of the abolition of slavery, support of a woman’s right to vote and a mostly favorable ‘take’ on the importance of ‘Darwinism’.

Beecher was flawed in many ways resulting in a notorious civil trial for allegedly seducing the wife of a well known parishioner who took him to court. In regard to his relationship with women I am left with the impression that he was either a knave or a fool and probably the former. But he was also coming to renown at a time when the growing influence of newspapers was creating what we now know as ‘celebrity’ of which he was one of the first. This book is a wonderful social, cultural, religious and political history in a critical period of American life.

This week saw a visit of N. T. Wright to Atlanta. (He is Bishop of Durham and was one of our centennial speakers at All Saints in 2003.) He was on a book tour in conjunction with his new book Surprised by Hope. He talked at Emory on ‘Why the resurrection matters’ and did his usual, articulate, logical and thoughtful job with the scripture, restraining himself to only one jab at ‘liberal bishops’ and that was more fun than mean. In some of the good ways he reminds me of Beecher (or vice versa) willing to use rather than court celebrity and media for the proclamation of the gospel. He puts together various strands of scholarship to articulate the resurrection of Jesus in ways that expand and deepen my own belief and assumptions. In some respects he is really not far from Marcus Borg who finds the essential testimony to be ‘Jesus lives’ and ‘Jesus is Lord’. As one parishioner put it, taking the two together is like looking at two very different styles of painting –one minimalist and one not—together leaving us a much more rich understanding than we would otherwise have had.

All of this rich writing and thinking about faith left me slightly dissatisfied with an affecting memoir of a South Korean woman who was adopted by a family in New Orleans and lived in Europe as a young adult. It is called Trail of Crumbs (Hachette Book Group, 2008) and subtitled Hunger, Love and the Search for Home. In the end she decides that home is really where her heart lies. I found myself wishing that her experience and insight could have led her to some kind of faith which I experience as a vastly more rich way of searching and place of discovery. But still I am glad to have read her book.

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