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APC Forum Resource Reviews November 2017


APC Forum, November 2017, Vol. 19 No. 7


An Other Kingdom: Departing the Consumer Culture
Peter Block, Walter Brueggemann, and John McKnight (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2016, 119 pages, softcover, Ebook, MP3 CD, Audible book)

If you find yourself critiquing our free market economy and its consumer culture, but lack theological or political language, head to your neighborhood book seller or library and start reading An Other Kingdom: Departing the Consumer Culture by Peter Block, Walter Brueggemann, and John McKnight. Block, a community organizer and writer, Brueggemann, a theologian and academic, and McKnight, a community organizer and policy researcher, have collaborated to deconstruct our consumer culture and to construct an alternative. Their uniquely named “neighborly covenant” presents “an alternative to a market ideology that has reached its limits, no matter how high the Dow Jones Industrial Average climbs” (xxii).

The authors begin with a critique of the free market consumer ideology with its four idolized pillars of scarcity, certainty, perfection and privatization. The authors assert, “Our basic intent in writing this book is to shrink the market as the primary means of cultural identity, schools as the sole source of learning, systems as the source of care, price as the measure of value, productivity as the basis for being” (82).  Prophetic imagination is a key component of this critique: “Our task is to imagine a culture ordered differently. Imagine the human benefit of an alternative to the market ideology that defines our culture.  We call this the Neighborly Covenant because it enlivens and humanizes the social order” (xxii). Their neighborly covenant is founded on beliefs in abundance, mystery, fallibility and the common good.

The layout of An Other Kingdom is a “slow spiraling dialogue” (xv). Critiques of the free market economy and construction of the neighborly covenant swirl back and forth and back again. Personal testimonies from the authors and quotes from the Bible are interspersed throughout the chapters. The Commentaries section at the end includes essays from nine men who share their opinions about how to use the book.  A helpful bibliography highlights books, websites, and resources.  

The authors admit to the book’s primary limitation—“It is not easy to be clear about the point of the book”—and acknowledge that the “reader may still feel that way” (103).  (I heartily agree.) Another limitation is the book’s language. The authors assume the reader is well versed in theological and political discourse.  The book is peppered with words such as kingdom, exodus, empire, common good, covenant, and manna, most of which have little or no explanation. I was disappointed with the small number of women compared to men who were cited as living out examples of the neighborly covenant and in the small number of women’s works cited in the bibliography.

Chaplains looking for a contemporary work which combines theological discourse, economic initiatives, and political organizing may find this book a welcome respite from cable news sound bites, Twitter feeds, and partisan politics.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Mahan DMin BCC, Staff Chaplain, HealthEast Care System, St. Paul, MN.



Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World

Dalai Lama (New York: Mariner Books, 2011, 188 pages, softcover, hardcover, Kindle, Audio CD)

As the title suggests, the author is trying to make a case for an ethical framework of living that uses no religious ethical standards or teachings.  His Holiness the Dalai Lama believes that ethics based on any one faith group—such as Jewish, Muslim, Christian, or any other—would never be accepted universally.  Thus, his approach focuses on our inner human values of concern, affection, and compassion.

An analogy the Dalai Lama uses is that humanity cannot live without water.  Water is a basic need of life, as are compassion and affection.  If we choose to flavor our water with some tea, then this is analogous to a particular religion or faith perspective.  However, the main ingredient in the tea is still water.  The Dalai Lama wants to build a framework of ethical living by using only water (as the analogy goes), which he calls Secular Ethics.  The term secular is used because the interdependence of shared human experience forms the basis of this ethic.

The author has traveled extensively around the world and has a good grasp of humanity in all its varieties.  Thus, he is appealing to a world audience, attempting to save humanity from its own destruction through materialism and violence and individualism.

While the Dalai Lama identifies many great points about how Secular Ethics would work in our world, the framework seems unrealistic and impractical.  Although most of his idea makes very good sense, he himself admits he is extremely optimistic.  Would humanity as a whole be interested or willing to do what it takes to make this reality he advocates occur? The Dalai Lama places much importance on inner reflection and development of actions that are beneficial to all.  Most human beings are unlikely to embrace the inner work necessary to change either themselves or the world around them. 

In addition, one key principle of his approach is interdependence, which to most Americans is foreign if not offensive.  We pride ourselves and live our lives heavily influenced by individualism.  After living ten years overseas in a culture that saw interdependence as a vital moral ethic, I do not sense that value at all in American culture.  And while there are many Americans who develop their inner feelings and behaviors as a result of reflection, many more do not.  Our culture is becoming more isolated on the world stage, mainly due to our emphasis on individualism vs. interdependence, and materialism over concern for all.

Laudably, the Dalai Lama wishes young people of today could be educated as much in the inner values, such as love, compassion, justice and forgiveness, as they are taught in the academic realm.  Such training, over a generation or two, would make a difference in our world for the better.

Reviewed by Mark A. Weiler DMin BCC, Staff Chaplain at North Colorado Medical Center, Greeley, Colorado.


No One Cares About Crazy People: The Chaos and Heartbreak of Mental Health in America

Ron Powers (New York:  Hachette Books, 2017, 348 pages, hardcover, Ebook, Audio CD)


Ron Powers is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who says he never would have chosen mental health as a subject for his writing—until both of his sons were diagnosed with schizophrenia, one of them ending his life at the age of 21 while in the grip of psychosis.  If you’ve ever wondered how in the world mental healthcare in America became so disjointed and out of order, his book provides a comprehensive history.

The title comes from an email (subpoenaed) from an administrative aide, reassuring her boss that the fallout from a scandal regarding mental health patients in their hospital would not damage his bid for political office.  To Powers, this statement sums up the history of care for the mentally ill, from the infamous lunatic asylum called Bedlam in the London of the 15th century, to the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill in the idealistic 60’s that sent them out homeless into the streets, to the nationwide budget cuts in recent years that crammed still more mentally ill into jails. In 2014, Cook County sheriff Thomas Dart stated that “. . . the American system has been ‘criminalizing mental illness’ ” (147).

Interspersed among the recitation of the cruelty and apathy toward the mentally-ill over the centuries, Powers introduces us to his sons Dean and Kevin, bright, talented boys who after years of developing their talents as creative songwriters and guitarists began acting strangely in their late teens.  Through this narrative, Powers makes personal the story of millions who step by step descend into the frustrating, maddening world of mental healthcare, where caregivers helplessly watch their beautiful children deteriorate, with little idea of how to get them the help they need. (Check out a montage of family photos created by Dean at http://www.noonecaresaboutcrazypeople.com/music/, illustrating Dean and Kevin’s performance of a song he wrote called “Annie Don’t Wake the Day,” a year before Kevin committed suicide.)

As a hospital chaplain, I regularly encounter patients with overwhelming psych issues and empathize with nurses and discharge planners who voice their frustration at the lack of resources available to help them; the hospital becomes a revolving door, due to non-compliance with the treatment plan because of poor community mental health support (due to continual budget cuts).  Although Power does not provide answers for the faulty system he berates, his personal narrative serves to remind us that the mentally-ill have talents, personal strengths, and individual personalities.  Powers concludes the book by stating, “ . . . the future of care for the mentally ill will depend upon whether Americans can recognize that their psychically troubled brothers and sisters are not a threat to communities, but potential partners with communities for not only their own but the community’s regeneration” (329).

This book supports continued educational development in the Professional Practice Skills Competencies, particularly 1-5, by encouraging informed growth in spiritual caregiving for the mentally ill and their caregivers.

Reviewed by Tamara R. Flinchum BCC SD, chaplain at AnMed Health, Anderson, SC.


Tears to Triumph: Spiritual Healing for the Modern Plagues of Anxiety and Depression
Marianne Williamson (New York:  HarperCollins Publishers, 2016, 222 pages, softcover, hardcover, Kindle, audio CD)

Well-known for her inspirational writing, here Williamson addresses the epidemic of sadness, depression and anxiety in our society: “This book is a spiritual reflection on human suffering, both its cause and its transcendence” (xii).  As she explains, “spiritual principles, when practically applied, are gateways to inner peace. This book is about turning these principles into an alchemical brew of personal transformation, using the insights of great religious truths to assuage the pain that is a part of being human” (2).

As the title suggests, the primary focus of the work is a reexamination of depression.  Williamson challenges those who are depressed to neither avoid nor numb it. Being depressed “doesn’t necessarily mean something is wrong. It simply means that work is being done; something is being looked at. Something is being endured, and ultimately something is being healed. Sadness during the process is natural; we’re looking at things that are not easy to look at and changing in ways that involve vulnerability before God and sometimes before other people as well” (146). She endorses having a wise counselor and/or spiritual guide as a companion on this journey.

The author objects to reducing all depressions to brain chemistry or psychological dynamics. At best they are only partial pathways to recovery: “Although in some cases the use of psychotherapeutic drugs can arguably be a positive, even life-saving regimen, today there is an epidemic of casual anti-depressant use that most assuredly is not” (39). In addition, she wants to reclaim the perspective that depression can also be a sickness of the soul: “We’re depressed because life today is off.  We’re depressed because too often we have no sense of our place in the universe, our relationship to the source of our existence, a deeper sense of purpose in our relationships with other human beings, or any sense of reverence toward any aspect of life at all. Our entire civilization is ruled more by fear than by love” (71).

Williamson integrates an understanding of the effect thoughts have upon our moods with spirituality: “Spirituality refers not to some theological dynamic outside of ourselves, but to how we choose to use our minds. The spiritual path is the path of the heart; at every moment, we’re either walking the path of love and creating happiness, or swerving from it and creating suffering. Every thought we think leads deeper into love or deeper into fear” (47).

Chaplains will resonate with and be emboldened for continuing their ministries by several themes found throughout:
  • Physical miracles occur primarily in the realm of relationships and in changes of heart and mind.
  • Grief is the immune system of the mind: “Grief over the normal losses of life should not be avoided, but accepted and embraced.  It is a process—not an event—best served when we surrender to it fully” (65).
  • Forgiveness of others and oneself is an essential element of healing.
  • Events in and of themselves are not tragic, but the perception we have of them will ultimately determine how tragic they are.
  • Alleviation of our own suffering and inner peace is reached through compassionate love and care for others.
Finally, a chapter is devoted to each of three major spiritual traditions, adapting the wisdom in each of them for the “hero’s journey” toward more fully living the spiritual life. Buddha, Moses and Jesus are Williamson’s exemplars. Whether she is faithful to the theologies of those traditions we will leave to the judgment of professional theologians.

Reviewed by Roy F. Olson DMin BCC and endorsed by the ELCA, who is mostly retired but continues to work as an on-call chaplain at Advocate Sherman Hospital in Elgin, Illinois.