An unusual email arrived following upon a recent “friending” through the increasingly oldster Facebook network. An eighty-something retired minister I knew decades ago, contacted me along with several disparate clergypersons from various places and denominations, with a request.
It began with the originator of the email chain asking if we wanted to engage in a virtual book study – via email – of a book of Mike Royko’s collected works. Royko was a controversial columnist syndicated by a variety of Chicago papers, ending on the staff of the Tribune. I don’t know if newspapers out here carried his columns back in the day, but I do know Jimmy Breslin loved the guy. Apparently, the Tribune published an eBook of the Royko’s columns on the twentieth anniversary of this death.
The first person to reply, another long-retired minister, instead suggested that each person on the chain propose four books that we think “speak to the times in which we live.” The list so far proposed, reads like a who’s who of contemporary prognosticators of public policy: Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think by George Lakoff; How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt; The Soul of Americaby Jon Meacham; One Nation After Trumpby E.J. Dionne, Jr., Norman Omstein, and Thomas E. Mann; When We Are No More: How Digital Memory Is Shaping Our Futureby Abby Smith; How Democratic Is The American Constitution?by Robert Dahl; and The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in an Age of Liesby Michael V. Haden. I stared at the list and, like Winnie the Pooh, thunk, thunk, thunk.
I have not read any of those books but I have read or heard reviews of each one. Without a doubt they are interesting and speak to our times, especially the political season we have been in for the past couple of years. But the times we are inbegan before the cruel and dangerous mess born of November 2016.
History textbooks love to parse human events into clear and precise epochs, as if there were single cause and effect relationships at work to orderly begin and end each chapter. I do not know where our current “times” began but it might have been as far back as WWI and the cultural phenomena born of that ugly and surreal tragedy. Likewise, the crucible of our current distemper may have been Auschwitz and Hiroshima, but they are clearly connected to WWI as well.
Knowing that the roots of this present retardation of justice and disfigurement of national character run deeper than an election cycle, I proposed different kinds of books: Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps by Richard Rohr (substance abuse and recovery); Jesus for Presidentby Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw (an ethic of anti-Christian privilege); Jesus: A Revolutionary Biographyby John Dominic Crossan (the truly revolutionary character of Jesus); Citizen: An American Lyricby Claudia Rankine (racism up close through poetry).
The afflictions of our times may be perpetuated and exacerbated by public personalities, technology, and unfettered access to legal and illegal pharmaceuticals and guns, but the woundedness of our national character runs deeper. Public policies matter, but so does therapy and spiritual wisdom and cleansing.